To whet your appetite, in case you have not had a chance to read my latest book Tossed Off the Edge, here is an excerpt of the first chapter!
Regina Knight Harrison Donavan Taylor Donavan McDonald McDonald Woodward Merriweather Todd’s funeral was held on channel seven at 1:00 p.m. local time in every time zone across the country. If you had ever watched daytime TV between 1970 until her demise, you couldn’t have missed her. She was blond and dramatic, and she had been shot, paralyzed, kidnapped, raped and tortured numerous times. On her better days, she had given or received a number of internal organs, suffered heart attacks and endured a radical mastectomy. There was also a debilitating stroke in her background, not to mention the mental problems and the mad scientist who cloned her so that serial murders could be committed in her name.
In spite of all the difficulties, including the births, deaths and sudden appearances of various children to whom she could and could not recall giving birth, and siblings who popped up year after year that she had never known, Regina maintained a strong faith in the power of love. She was a one-man woman in spite of having been married nine times to seven different husbands who got younger and younger as Regina aged.
Coincidentally, the actress who played her has won the same number of Emmys as on-screen marriages, but no more. Regina has died and will stay dead. I’m prostrate with grief. Oh, I know you think I’m being silly for soap operas are known for their mistaken deaths, surprise resurrections, bodies that were never found only to show up again and again. There have even been shocking deaths televised with the corpse in the coffin, which showed up thirty years later. The audience believed it when they were told the dead man, who would’ve been 107 by then, had been living in the next town over without so much as a nurse to come by and check on him during all that time.
No, Regina is dead. The network told me so personally when they delivered my pink slip. You see, I wrote Regina’s story line for twenty years. Sheila Wozniak might’ve spoken the lines and taken all the glory, but I wrote Regina’s words, her screams, her tears and her heart-felt soliloquies for half of her televised life. No one knew Regina better than I for I was guiding her life.
I had plans for Regina to outlive Sheila Wozniak. Whether the actress retired or ended up having to be rolled onto the set in a wheelchair to read a couple of lines off the prompter, I would bide my time until they replaced her with a younger actress. It didn’t concern me that eventually Regina might end up younger than her daughter—the one switched at birth and raised by the maniacal couple from Argentina. The Edge of Conflict was just getting started at forty years. I envisioned at least twenty-five more years of untapped trauma and tragedy for Regina, but there was one malady she couldn’t overcome in spite of all her other miraculous triumphs: innate stubbornness.
The network was trying to save money during a massive, international recession, and one way was to ship all of daytime TV’s production to the West Coast. I, for one, was looking forward to warmer winters. Since the advent of the Internet, I’d dreamed of submitting my scripts and canvases from the beaches of Jamaica and Hawaii. While technology made life easier for some of us—actors could do in two hours what once took two days—I was required to make regular appearances at the studio for meetings and rewrites.
Unlike primetime writers, I didn’t get as much time off, and in spite of my love of New York, I thought that being closer to the film industry might help me sell that neglected screenplay. Whether or not the film was a success or ever made for that matter, I felt that a sale would solidify my shaky financial condition. Unfortunately, Sheila Wozniak is an East Coast diva who is disgusted by anything west of the eastern shore of the Hudson River.
Sheila and I have been friends ever since I started writing for her. She loved my ideas and encouraged my creativity. She was a pro and had played with gusto every outlandish script I’d ever written. She was the network’s sweetheart and cash cow. She had Satan for an agent and each contract renewal was better than the last. She knew her value and capitalized on it. When I gave her amnesia and turned her into a biker chick, she went upstairs to the execs and demanded an expensive leather bomber jacket.
“Regina Knight-Donavan-Taylor,” she said, as she had only been married a few times at that point (that the audience knew about), “would not wear a cheap vinyl jacket. The audience can see how cheap this is, and you should be embarrassed!” Sheila had balls, and not even Jack Ginsberg, head of the network’s daytime division, could tell her that if Regina had amnesia and forgot that she was an heiress, it was unlikely that her new persona was as discerning.
I loved my job, and I loved Regina. I’d been in love with her since those summers back in Texas when my babysitter sat me down beside her every hot summer afternoon to watch her “stories” with her. I soon figured out that this woman dealing with a philandering husband, who might have fathered some crazy woman’s child, had a certain quality about her. Even though her story was set in the Midwest, Regina seemed to have a grace and charm that was more at home in London’s West End. I would later find out that Sheila had studied in England, which confirmed that if there were a Hillvale, Wisconsin, there was no one living there who could flit about her grandmother’s Edwardian mansion with such presence.
Sheila had just signed another five-year contract when the big-wigs announced that the show would pack up in six months, and we would be in California by mid-January. We were offered two choices: move or quit. I had thrown my entire career into Regina. Hillvale might leave New York, but Regina would never leave Hillvale. She couldn’t exist outside of that little berg of indeterminate size and geography. I had always told myself that there would always be a Regina as long as Sheila wanted there to be a Regina; even longer if I had anything to do with it.
I can still hear the shouting as Sheila interrupted the announcement: “Marty! I’m not going!” She was seated in her special chair on the set in full Regina makeup and hair. Marty was at least the fifth head of the daytime division since Jack Ginsberg had succumbed to a heart attack. As Regina went through husbands, Sheila went through network execs.
“Now Sheila,” began Marty. “I mean Miss Wozniak.” I couldn’t see, but could tell that she had shot him that withering look that everyone except her fans, her director and I got whenever she was addressed by her first name. She had a public image as America’s sweetheart to maintain, so she was always on a first-name basis with her adoring public. Those she respected could address her as Sheila, but actors younger than she and all network brass said Miss Wozniak—at least to her face.
I admit it was strange to hear Regina’s daughter (one of the ones she had remembered giving birth to) say, “Oh, darling Mother, please come out of that coma,” a mere few seconds before the director yelled “cut” and she apologized to darling Mother with the words, “I’m sorry Miss Wozniak, I promise not to block your shot next time.”
“Don’t put me off Marty!” Sheila shouted in that voice she reserved for Friday cliffhangers, “This is utter nonsense! I refuse to have my show moved out from under me because the men upstairs think they can save a buck!”
I was pretty impressed that she could play this scene without a script. Of course, by this time, it was hard to tell where Sheila left off and Regina began. The only thing I would have written differently was the remark about it being “my” show. I still shudder when I think of the younger cast members visibly stepping back, and the look on Brie Feinberg’s face. Brie had been playing Francesca Barker-Pate-Donavan-Knight-Woodward-Knight-Handler-Pitt-Jorgensen for thirty-five years. Francesca was Regina’s arch enemy, chief competition, one-time lover, occasional step-mother, and her step-daughter (twice!). The two had a great relationship off-screen as Sheila and Brie, but Brie’s blind loyalty ended the moment Sheila said out loud what everyone had always suspected that she believed: The Edge of Conflict was her show.
In the days that followed, Sheila and Brie huddled in their shared dressing room when they weren’t shooting. Brie had a lot of debts, and there was no way she could afford to quit. She was going to make the move west. While Brie was still smarting over Sheila’s remarks, she knew that her survival depended on Sheila’s remaining on the show. In spite of not wanting to ever speak to Sheila again, she tried to explain that if both of them stood up to the brass, the network might reconsider. If not, perhaps Sheila could accept the offer to be flown out two weeks a month to film her scenes in marathon sessions.
Sheila knew that it wouldn’t take long for that airfare bill to be cut from the budget, and then she would be asked to move or quit exactly as she was being asked to do at that moment.
“No,” she insisted to Brie, “we must make them see the error of their ways—for their own good.”
Except for the library set of Regina’s Edwardian mansion in Hillvale, everything had changed in recent years. The power of daytime television had waned, and unscripted TV with “real people” had pulled the younger audience away. The older audience was literally dying off, and the remaining few under the age of forty weren’t really interested in the love life of someone with an AARP card. Sheila’s bedroom scenes were a rare occurrence at this late stage, but when we had to go there, the focus was noticeably soft. We’d been threatened with high-definition television at one point, but to Sheila’s relief, the cost was more than the network wanted to spend.
I was called into a staff meeting in September. The network had reached a settlement with Sheila in regard to her contract. She still denied that her case was terminal.
“I came back from the dead when I flat-lined after that building in the underground city collapsed on top of me,” she said.
“That’s true,” I said. “But I had to write that time travel bit where you entered the scene just outside the disaster area in order to shove yourself out of the way in time.”
“You’re right! I forgot about that.”
“Sheila, I don’t think you’re going to make it this time.”
“Pish tash!” said Sheila, but it sounded like Regina.
After I was directed to reconstruct Regina’s canvas and condense five years of projected story into a few weeks, I came up with the mother of all deathbed scenes. They shot it six weeks before it aired, and after it was edited, I was let go.
Sheila wasn’t answering her phone when I called a few hours before Regina’s funeral. I thought maybe she would want some company or perhaps would want to go to lunch; anything to get out of the house during her nationally televised swansong.
The familiar theme music came on with the photo album of cast members past and present. Though I had written the funeral scene, which was eighty-percent of the episode, I was already in tears. Regina had died two weeks earlier, but grief and misery required forty years of flashbacks, which also covered the down time as the show made its official move to the new Los Angeles studio.
To give the audience absolutely no hope of a resurrection, the network commanded that the camera zoom in on Regina before they closed the lid, latched the casket in four places, and slid it into a fiery chamber for an on-air cremation. Save for Houdini and my special time-travel writing, there was no way anyone could get out of that inferno alive.
It was the end of an era.
To get the entire story of Sheila Wozniak and learn how she was Tossed Off the Edge, visit:
© 2014 by Patrick Brown