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The Real Stories Behind a Trio of ‘Charmed’ Lives

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The three beautiful Halliwell sisters are the fashionable good witches on the WB’s “Charmed.” They battle evil, cast spells, romance a procession of attractive males--and bring a little magic to the three sisters who get to sit home and watch their alter egos at play.

Series creator and executive producer Constance M. Burge heeded the authors’ creed to write what she knows by recapturing her own family dynamics in the relationships of the TV coven.

Her earliest memories are of a cul-de-sac in West Covina where she toddled along behind her older sisters Edie and Laura. So now the three take great sport in dissecting the show’s metaphoric arcs about three women who can overcome any fantastic obstacle--as long as they have each other.

“We’re so close, I’m always going to them for advice,” Burge said one recent morning at Spelling Productions in Los Angeles, working in an office with a bundled-straw broom leaning against a wall and a tall, black cone hat on an end table. Willowy, blond, in her 30s, Burge has an engagingly fragile smile that seems quite ready for the other side of the camera.

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“They give me personal advice,” she added with a breezy laugh. “One thing, I don’t have to borrow money from them anymore.”

Indeed, “Charmed” was an immediate success for WB. The often funny, sometimes campy drama premiered last October with solid ratings and generally favorable reviews, spurring a prompt full-season order of 22 episodes from the network. In one respect it was a prime-time comeback vehicle for Shannen Doherty. The onetime “Beverly Hills, 90210" bad girl plays the eldest of the three sisters: the confident, sensible and telekinetic Prue. The character is modeled on the executive producer’s eldest sister, Laura Snow, who works as chief liaison for the Defense Department’s National Imagery and Mapping Agency in Washington.

“I wish I looked as good as Shannen,” said Snow, who is 8 1/2 years older than Burge. “I see myself as an older Meg Ryan, maybe when she hits 40.”

The middle witch and the one who can make time stand still, Piper (Holly Marie Combs), is based on the real-life Edie Burge of San Marino, a communications executive with Avery Dennison Inc.

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“I spent a lot of time taking care of Connie,” recalls Edie Burge, who, her sisters intimate, has a wicked sense of humor. “I would put on her birthday parties . . . And later on, when we were both at UCLA, I’d rescue her from frat parties.”

The youngest and the prescient witch, Phoebe (Alyssa Milano), is based on the show creator. But unlike Constance, Phoebe hasn’t quite found her way in the world.

“We tease her a lot, because Phoebe has never had a job,” Snow said. But with the teasing come honest reviews, added Snow: “We critique every episode.”

Criticism aside, Snow concedes she wouldn’t mind having a few of Prue’s powers--the ability to move objects, for instance. One episode, which hit close to home, has Prue lifting an elevator straight to the top floor, only a fantasy for Snow, who faces a less-than-speedy ride to the top of her building most days.

“Connie had a great imagination,” Edie Burge recalled. “Every trip to the store was an adventure full of marvelous characters, and she’d come home and tell the most wonderful stories about them.”

The younger Burge realized she wanted to go into show business when she sat through double features with her stockbroker father, Phil, who took her to air-conditioned movies in the summer heat. She earned a master’s degree in playwriting at UCLA, and mostly worked as a waitress and bartender until she landed on the writing staff on “Medicine Ball,” a short-lived 1995 Fox drama about the lives and loves of a group of young Seattle interns.

When it was canceled, she rebounded by writing the pilot for “Savannah,” a steamy WB prime-time soap opera about three close female friends in the South awash in romance, passion and betrayal. The settings were embellished by recollections that her mother, Cecelia, has about growing up in southern Georgia. After that show was canceled two years ago, she went right to work on another pilot, which she pitched to Susanne Daniels, now the WB’s programming chief, then a development executive.

But that pitch failed--Burge had proposed a series about bounty hunters. Daniels recalls that she’d just heard a speech about female empowerment, and “told Connie to work on something with strong female characters.”

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Burge said her themes persistently express the significant role of femininity in protecting the innocent and creating goodness. The witches invoke a mysterious “power of three” certain to overcome evil, usually in the form of oppressive, dangerous male figures--and which, not surprisingly, has resulted in a predominantly female audience. In the series, Burge has created romantically challenged witches. Prue had a police detective boyfriend for a while, but after a jewelry heist he showed up with a search warrant. Piper’s long fling with their handyman-cum-guardian angel seemed to go ice after he announced that he had to fly back home, as he put it. Phoebe, well, doesn’t keep boyfriends very long.

“Maybe it’s just Los Angeles,” Burge said, “but relationships are very tricky. It’s very challenging to meet the right one.”

Her recent engagement to a music publisher won favorable reviews from her long-married sisters.

“They said, ‘Thank God. Keep him. Don’t blow it,’ ” Burge said. “They tell me what I need to know, not always what I want to hear.”

* “Charmed” airs on Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on the WB network (KTLA in Los Angeles). The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).


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