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‘The City’ Is a Killer : MORGAN FAIRCHILD TAKES ‘LOVING’ FROM SMALL-TOWN CORINTH TO DOWNTOWN MANHATTAN

Robert Rorke is a New York-based free-lance writer

Desperate times demand drastic measures. With a consistent address in the Nielsen basement, there was only one place for the ABC soap “Loving” to go: off the air. ABC’s affiliates were fed up with promises that The Little Show That Couldn’t, as the 12-year old soap was known, would somehow reverse its slump. If ABC wanted to save the show, it had to act immediately.

“We didn’t have the time to go the natural route to take a year and build a show back up,” says Jean Dadario Burke, executive producer of “Loving/The City.” She told her head writers, James Harmon Brown and Barbara Esensten to “get radical.” The team came up with a three-part plan to literally remake the show. First on their agenda was the elimination of half the cast. Then they wanted to relocate the show from the fictional Corinth, Penn., to New York City. Most importantly, they wanted to get a star to launch their new show.

ABC loved the idea. Brown and Esensten devised a murder mystery centering around a serial killer who poisoned, drowned and smothered several members of the cast. Morgue-bound were the series’ founding family, the blue-blooded Aldens, as well as several of their satellites. Surviving characters were moved to a loft in SoHo, New York’s neighborhood of art galleries, boutiques and Eurotrash cafes. The show also needed a new name. Brown and Esensten said they were “inundated” with suggestions, the worst of which was “Urban Looove.”

“It sounded like a Barry White song,” says Brown. The network first decided on “LOVNYC.” Now, the show is simply called “The City.” The star of “The City” is none other then Morgan Fairchild, veteran of yesteryear soaps like “Flamingo Road” and “Paper Dolls.” Fairchild is playing Sydney Chase, a woman with too much money and too little love.

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“We knew we needed a star,” says Brown. “We needed an identifiable name to help sell the new show.” Says his sardonic partner, “It was really important to us not to have somebody who was a diva type. We’d worked with people like that before.”

“And we really wanted it to be more reality-based,” she ads “We’d just seen [Fairchild] do some comedy. So when her name came up, we said she’d be great.” Says Brown, “We’re having a great time with Morgan. She’s got a great sense of humor.”

Once they had their star in place, Esensten and Brown had to get to the nasty business of mass murder. “It’s been an emotional couple of months,” says Burke. The bloodletting produced such anxiety among the cast that Randy Mantooth (Alex) broke out in hives. “Watching all my friends being killed off has been the most stressful time in my career,” he says, his neck and face pink and blotchy. “It’s awful.”

Mentions of “The City” are rare and hush-hush on the set of “Loving.” “We don’t talk about the other show at all,” Mantooth whispers. “It’s hard for us to celebrate because it makes other people feel bad.” Crestfallen as he was, Mantooth was also secretly thrilled about the impending changes. “My heart skipped a beat and I thought I’d like to be part of this,” he says. “This is gonna be brand new.”

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Mantooth’s co-star, Debbi Morgan (Angie), was one of the few Corinthians who knew she’d survive; all of the serial killer’s victims were white. “People were asking me, ‘Are you gonna get killed?’ I said, ‘I think I’ve got a good shot at missing this’.” She laughs heartily. “We did this scene one day and Darnell [Williams, who plays Jacob] said, ‘Oh, come on, the killer doesn’t even know that black people live in Corinth.’ Everybody cracked up.”

The “Loving” murders (which will wrap up this week as the identity of the serial killer is revealed) have brought new affiliates to the show as well as a 20% increase in ratings. ABC is also going to test a time-slot switch in three mid-size markets, sandwiching “The City” between The Shows That Always Could, “All My Children” and “One Life to Live.” As Mantooth puts it, “We have all said the time slot is killing us.”

As “The City” introduces Asian and Hispanic characters that reflect the multicultural diversity of New York, Brown and Esensten plan to overhaul what has clearly become an antediluvian form. “We wanted a new kind of soap-opera family,” Brown says, “where it wasn’t the richest people in the world living on the hill and the have-nots over here. We came up with the concept for the SoHo loft. We took all these desperate folks and put them in the same place to see how they interact. We are going to be telling stories at a faster pace.”

With weekly location filming scheduled, they’re also relying on New York itself to play a role on “The City.” On a gorgeous fall day in Washington Square Park, the cast and crew of “The City” are getting a taste of what this city is really like. They’ve roped off the portion of the park where benches and cement tables with built-in chessboards attract regular players. Across the street sits New York University’s law school, 50 feet away, the park’s muttering, pacing drug dealers.

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When the star of the day arrives, it’s without fanfare, but soon enough Morgan Fairchild attracts a crowd. Dog walkers bring their pets, and bike riders bring their vehicles over to watch a scene where she plays chess with Australian actor Corey Page (Richard). Fairchild presides over retakes with a queen-like serenity, her blonde self sheathed in black turtleneck, vest leggings and thigh-high, gold-studded, suede dominatrix boots. The get-up seems more Beverly Hills than New York, and, in The City, everyone has an opinion.

“What’s with the boots?” asks a female student from the Fashion Institute of Technology. “I don’t like them, especially for playing chess.” Another woman with a pierced navel thinks Fairchild is overly made-up. “Morgan, honey, I think you should be more natural. And gain some weight. What does your man grab?” The blonde phenom scores points with one of the regular chess players, a soft-spoken man named Flash who says, “It would send thrills up and down my spine” to sit down to a game with her.

Filming stops while a truck loading a moving a dumpster across the street wipes out the audio. There are advantages, though, to working on location. Crowds keep an actor honest, says Roscoe Born, brought on board to play Fairchild’s old flame, scruffy troubadour Nick Rivers. “All the energies that are bouncing all over the place keep you on your toes and keep you connected,” he says.

Born prefers to do location work in New York. “Even though New Yorkers are very media savvy, they’re still not extras. Almost everybody in Los Angeles is an extra. Ninety percent of the people who walk by on Hollywood Boulevard would be trying to give you a picture and resume. The cops who are helping us out, if they were L.A. cops they’d all be SAG members. It’s amazing how many of them are. The cops here are real cops.”

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Real cops in an all-too-real city. Can Morgan Fairchild put a soap opera called “The City” on the map? ABC is banking on it.

“Loving” airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on ABC; it will become “The City” on Nov. 13.

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MORGAN FAIRCHILD, PALE FLOWER IN THE CITY

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Morgan Fairchild’s tiny hand is ice cold.

She has been posing for photos at the World Financial Center. Bracing her petite frame against the brisk winds that whip off the choppy Hudson, her hair holds up and so does that tomato-red Versace pantsuit. It’s a stylish way to shiver. But even inside her trailer, Fairchild is still shaking. “I’m just a pale flower of the South,” she jokes as she sips coffee and talks about her role on “The City.” Her entrance will set the entire tone for the show. “The first time you see her, she gets off the helicopter in all-white Versace. The chauffeur comes up and says, “How was Barcelona?” She says, ‘They all lisp.’ ”

Fairchild laughs and laughs. “It’s deadly. It’s funny. A lot of people in middle America may not get it. But we get like a whole new group of people who do get it. Instead of going for the lowest common denominator, we’re going for a whole other level of humor and speed and everything else.”

While the writers promise to supply Fairchild with one-liners like that, Fairchild promises to deliver the kind of prime-time sheen for which she is famous and which, she thinks, is sorely missing on daytime. Armed with a no-expenses-spared wardrobe, Fairchild can’t disappoint. She knows that women will be turning in just to see what she wears. “My concept is that this should just be the grandest thing anybody’s ever seen on daytime,” she says. “I’m going to try never to disappoint them. We’ve got Vivenne Westwood, honey. They ain’t never seen Vivenne Westwood on daytime.”

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And they haven’t seen Morgan Fairchild on daytime in 18 years, when she was on “Search for Tomorrow.” Initially, the prospect of returning to soaps didn’t grab her. But the show’s bold concept and ABC’s offer (“Oh, honey, are they making it worth my while!” she coos) won her over. “We’re trying to break genre here,” she says. “This is so much bigger than what anybody’s ever attempted in daytime. It’s a giant leap into the abyss.”

Maybe wardrobe can get her something by Thierry Mugler with Thinsulate as she makes that leap. Fairchild is dreading her first real winter in years. “You can see right through me,” she says, holding up her hand. “I’m this little fine-boned thing.”

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Among the Survivors

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Philip Brown

Corey Page

Laura Sisk

Alimi Ballard

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Debbi Morgan

Catherine Hickland

Randolph Mantooth

Amelia Heinle

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George Palermo

Darnell Williams


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