From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
When it premiered two seasons back, Dynasty seemed little more than a gene-spliced ABC replicant of CBS' Dallas, with plots centered on feuding oil tycoons in Denver, Blake Carrington (John Forsythe) and Cecil Colby (Lloyd Bochner). There were gorgeous ladies, handsome dudes, plenty of bed-hopping and back-stabbing—and mediocre ratings. Despite its shameless melodramatic excesses, the show lacked something. There was no wickedly charismatic scourge, no character to love-to-hate. In short, no J.R., despite Forsythe's machinations. A year later the producers fixed that by adding a female sexual predator—elegant, articulate Alexis Carrington. Cast as Forsythe's vindictive ex, she became Colby's mistress and the nemesis of Forsythe's current wife, Krystle (Linda Evans). It would have been a tall order for most actresses, but what the show really then had was a part in search of Joan Collins.

Collins, still seductive at 49 (she admits to 46), veteran of some 50 mostly unmemorable film roles, deftly used her considerable acting savvy to transform Alexis into a Dynasty linchpin. Last spring the series climaxed, as it were, with a cliffhanger that made Who Shot J.R.? look like Who Killed Cock Robin? Colby suffered a massive coronary in coitus with Alexis. Dynasty devotees spent the summer wondering whether he would recover to marry Alexis and unite with her against Carrington. So many Americans have stayed tuned that the show has pulled off the once unimaginable: This season Dynasty has often dethroned Dallas as prime time's hottest lather. The plot twists are more ingenious and outrageous every week. As Collins says, "The permutations are endless. It's like a machine now. The exposure and popularity are phenomenal. It is a great role, a larger-than-life bitch." Collins now tops the cast's mail call with some 12,000 love-hate letters weekly. "Any actress would have had the same impact," she says.

With new fame come the ultimate status symbols: sniping rumors of (a) an ever-shattering marriage—her third—to producer Ron Kass, 47; (b) catty set rivalries; and (c) reports of a stratospheric $500,000 salary per season. Her replies: (a) "Ron's upstairs right now with a broken foot"; (b) "No, I do not taunt my friend Linda Evans about being too old to have babies or whatever it is"; and (c) "I wish."

Cast members don't object to all the attention Collins receives. "She stimulated the set when she was added," says Evans. "Joan has a wonderful working mind." John James, who plays Colby's son-in-law, says, "You know sparks will fly when she's out there. She adds a splash of sauce."

Whether or not it was Collins who gave Dynasty its critical boost, the reverse could certainly be argued. She landed the part in August 1981, during a rare lull in an otherwise prolific and colorful Hollywood career spanning three decades. Her last American film credit—in 1979—had been the half-baked Sunburn, though in her native England she had stayed busy with Cinzano commercials and roles on stage, screen and TV. She and Kass had even sold their Coldwater Canyon home and moved full-time to their London digs. "People think Hollywood's the end-all and be-all," says Joan. "For me, all the action was in England."

Indeed it was, most visibly, her nude scenes in The Stud and The Bitch, both produced by Kass and adapted from English novels by her younger sister Jackie Collins. And there was her racy autobiography: Past Imperfect. The book, published in Britain, detailed affairs with Warren Beatty, Nicky Hilton, Rafael Trujillo, Ryan O'Neal and second husband Anthony Newley, as well as a drugging and sexual assault by first husband Maxwell Reed. The book backfired. "It was a mistake," she says. "My countrymen sneered so much I gave back a $100,000 advance to Warner Books to not have it come out in the United States. I must say writing it seemed like a good idea at the time."

So, apparently, did Homework, a low-budget flick Joan has admitted doing "for the money" in the late '70s. It was released in the U.S. last summer to cash in on her newly won Dynasty fame. It included nude scenes with a body-double likeness of Joan—promoted with a poster blitz showing Joan's face spliced to another woman's bare torso. If the distributors had done their homework, they'd have known that they had picked the wrong lady to exploit.

Collins, a resilient, proud and determined veteran, sued to halt the ads. In an out-of-court settlement—satisfactory to both parties—made this fall, she agreed not to discuss its terms or the film itself, though last summer she called the experience "a total rip-off. I've done nude scenes before, but they were tasteful and tongue-in-cheek, as it were. An analogy is a judge telling a woman who's been raped, 'Yes, but you've been to bed with other men before, haven't you?' "

It was not, predictably, Collins' last stand. Earlier this month, alleging copyright infringement, she sued a national tabloid for publishing lengthy unauthorized excerpts from her Past Imperfect. "You just can't stand by and let the world kick you in the teeth," she says. "I will not let myself be maligned or victimized." (She is now considering plans to publish the book here.)

Collins' instinct for survival had already been tested in a far graver battle—for daughter Katy's life. The girl, now 10, had lapsed into a coma in August 1980 after being struck by a car in England's Berkshire countryside. Collins and Kass moved into a mobile home near Central Middlesex Hospital, keeping a desperate vigil. After six weeks Katy came home for good, and Collins feels that, in part, her daughter was willed back to life.

"Katy is a special child," says Collins, "mystical, sweet and gentle, as if she's been touched by something from beyond." The near-fatal injury and remarkable recovery (described in her new book Katy: A Fight For Life, and in PEOPLE's Nov. 16, 1981 issue) jeopardized Collins' plum role and third marriage. Months later, after moving back to L.A. for Dynasty (and a more nurturing temperate climate for Katy's physiotherapy and swimming), she recalls, "I was exhausted. It had taken an enormous toll on us." What proved too much was the shooting schedule combined with moving back into the home they previously had sold and setting up her two teenage children by Newley, Tara, 19, and Sacha, 17, in schools in Europe. "I collapsed one day on the set," Joan says. "I just needed a little space."

Kass split to give it to her, but they came to their senses only days later. "We're both mature adults. Sure we have problems. But the thought of a divorce is so horrendous that our motivation for staying married is stronger than anything else. We have a lot of time and experience invested in each other."

Still, it seems that whenever Kass, who once headed the Beatles' Apple Records, flies off somewhere for business (usually to England), the tabloids shriek divorce. "It's absolute rubbish," she insists. "We do spend a lot of time apart. Ron does fly back and forth. We're nor sitting in front of a fireplace. I mean, we aren't exactly teenagers anymore."

As a child born in northwest London, she enjoyed a strong and secure family life. Her father, Joseph, was a partner with London impresario Lew (now Lord) Grade, and the Collins home was often filled with top names from stage and film. Collins logged two years at the esteemed Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Modeling jobs led to a contract with the Rank Organization, and by the mid-1950s she was signed to 20th Century-Fox for films like Island in the Sun, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing and (her fave) Rally Round the Flag, Boys! with Paul Newman. "Okay," she admits, "as a body of work over the years, it is not that fantastic, but I did get some not too shabby reviews in some fairly mediocre films. I can cut the mustard as an actress in more ways than people have ever given me credit for."

These days Dynasty's demands leave little time for anything but family. "I've given up going to the gym and reading crap fiction," she says of her two favorite pastimes.

Off camera, Collins is quick to separate her persona from Alexis' wicked mystique. She seems warm and gracious, urbane, earthy and informal. Her best-developed feature: a vocabulary which fuels a biting wit and spitfire humor. For example: Was money an issue in moving back to London? "Show me a person for whom money is no issue and I'll show you a billionaire." Has Dynasty changed people's reaction to her? "I call them the 'woodwork friends,' the ones who a year ago wouldn't cross the street to say hello. There's a tendency for people in this town to gloat over others' failures."

Clearly the one no-nonsense part of her life is Katy. Collins recently traveled to Washington to lobby for congressional funding for neurological research. She spent part of a weekend this month in Newport Beach, Calif. putting Katy through highly advanced brain tests to check her progress. The result: enormously positive.

She and Kass prefer small dinners out with friends or at home, though Joan says, "When I have people over it's very casual. I have my 10 things to make—spaghetti alla Bolognese, salads—and so forth—and that's it. I don't spend my free time searching for recipes in magazines."

Instead, she's eager to diversify her career. She played the wicked witch in a Showtime presentation of Hansel and Gretel. She recently starred in the made-for-ABCer The Wild Women of Chastity Gulch and in an English movie, The Nutcracker. Of course, she still dreams of "that one really good film with that one really good modern woman's role. I'm not knocking Dynasty—it's bloody good and it's been great for me, but it is not Brideshead Revisited." Joan continues: "TV is ephemeral. I just happen to be the busiest flavor-of-the-month brunette. There are other mountains I want to climb." And for Collins, as well as for Alexis, it's always better to be on top.