Libby Slate is a frequent contributor to TV Times and Calendar

The TV movie "Terror in the Shadows," airing Monday night on NBC, is a thriller with a twist: Its three leads are played by daytime soap stars.

Genie Francis and Leigh J. McCloskey, both on ABC's "General Hospital," play Sarah and Alex Williams, a Colorado Springs couple celebrating their first year of marriage when their lives are disrupted by a woman from Alex's past.

Enter bad girl Marcy Walker of ABC's "All My Children." She plays Christine Hellman, a mental hospital escapee who believes that the son Alex is raising is her own rather than Sarah's from a previous marriage. This is where it gets very soap operatic: Christine's boy, whom Alex had adopted, was in fact killed years earlier, along with Alex's first wife, by Christine herself. That would explain Christine's stay in the mental facility.

Also moonlighting from daytime is Victoria Wyndham of NBC's "Another World," as Sarah's best friend and business partner. Mark D. Espinoza, late of Fox's "Beverly Hills, 90210," plays a police detective.

"We wrote the movie without thinking about who would star in it," says Freyda Rothstein, executive producer with Lois Luger. Rothstein's nearly 35 television movie credits include the recent ABC film "Betrayed: The Story of Three Women" and Lifetime's "And Then There Was One."

"The network said, 'This would be perfect to use soap stars.' They try to do that once a year," according to Rothstein. "I started my career in soaps--I started as a production assistant on 'Search for Tomorrow' and I produced shows like 'Love of Life.' I've always had respect for soap actors."

Fortunately, casting logistics worked in Rothstein's favor, and she was able to get the actors she wanted. "It's very complicated to get daytime actors, to give them enough warning to have them written out," Rothstein says. "You need a lot of cooperation from a lot of people. But these actors are valuable, so every effort is made to accommodate them."

There was only one difference in working with daytime rather than prime-time actors, Rothstein notes: "I found them extremely eager to do something that had a beginning, a middle and an end."

The actors agree that playing a story with a quick resolution was a decided change of pace from their day jobs. And there were other dissimilarities as well.

"I call daytime a 'hit-the-ground-running' situation," says McCloskey, who plays the devilish Damian Smith on "General Hospital." "You can come in with 40 pages of dialogue, expected to accomplish whatever the scenes demand. You really have to come in at performance level. Daytime is shot more like theater--you run a scene from beginning to end, so there's more immediacy. In nighttime television, you have more time, more camera set-ups to create the mood. There's more opportunity to hone a performance." The soap shooting schedule has its benefits, says Walker, who returned last month to "All My Children," reprising her 1980-1983 role of Liza Colby after stints on CBS' "Guiding Light" and NBC's now-departed "Santa Barbara."

"It's difficult [in prime time], shooting out of sequence, maintaining a flow, a consistency of choices from scene to scene," Walker says.

The nature of the project itself afforded all three actors a departure from their daytime roles.

"I thought it would be fun to do a thriller," says Francis, who plays the virtuous Laura Spencer on "General Hospital." In her view, "Terror in the Shadows" is a "non-soapy script--it's not about who's sleeping with whom, not a romantic comedy. The character itself is not that different from Laura--viewers will be seeing the sweet, soft Genie they're used to seeing."

Certainly, the same cannot be said for the character played by Walker, who gained fame and a Daytime Emmy as golden girl Eden Capwell Castillo on "Santa Barbara." As the deranged Christine, the barely made-up Walker commits a number of murders as well as mayhem in the name of motherly love.

"I thought it would be interesting to play a character so far into denial about killing her own child that she created this whole fantasy world that someone else's child was hers," says Walker, herself the mother of a 6-year-old son.

Unlike his co-stars, McCloskey occasionally shot scenes for his soap and the TV movie on the same day. "In the morning on 'General Hospital' I was playing this Machiavellian, manipulative rogue, weaving webs of deception," he says with relish. "Then I was here, unveiling webs. It keeps you psychologically very flexible."

The movie also provided McCloskey, also a "Santa Barbara" alumnus, a somewhat ironic reunion with Walker. "I was Marcy's rapist-gynecologist on 'Santa Barbara,' " he says. "So I thought that this was a payback for her. Now she's the demented stalker."

"Terror in the Shadows" airs Monday at 9 p.m. on NBC. "All My Children" airs weekdays at noon and "General Hospital" at 2 p.m. on ABC .

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