Merete Van Kamp and Lindsay Wagner Take Pulp to Prime Time in Princess Daisy

updated 11/14/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/14/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Here's the predicament: There's only one miniseries, but it stars two actresses—one established, one encroaching. And they both play princesses. The first is an American movie star who marries a dashing Russian prince; the other is her stunning, feistily independent daughter, named Princess Daisy. Off camera, at a photo session in a Toronto hotel, the two actresses hardly exude a blood-bond warmth. Earlier, a series of phone calls from the press agents who shadow their every move suggests a game of Hollywood chicken—neither actress dares arrive first for the photo session. If it's not quite a drama-packed Judith Krantz confrontation played for real, it's because the two women seem distant—with no location anecdotes, no sisterly confidences, no bitchy sparks. The reason: Lindsay Wagner, 34, as Francesca Valensky, and newcomer Merete Van Kamp, 22, in the title role in NBC's multimillion-dollar version of Krantz's Princess Daisy best-seller, are virtual strangers. They shot no scenes together because mother Francesca drives off a cliff when Daisy is just 6.

Another, more crucial factor separates them. Lindsay truly is royalty, the Hollywood kind. A consistently bankable TV-drama vet since her Bionic Woman days (she also helped put Krantz's Scruples on top of the Nielsens in 1980), Wagner knows she's the draw to win high ratings for Princess Daisy. "My absolute minimum rating is most people's tops," she says. To her, Daisy is "something I gave myself. I'm in the fortunate position where I don't need it. I said why not go to England, have some fun. It was a lark." To rookie Merete—whose previous acting credits consist of bit parts in a TV movie and the current Osterman Weekend—Daisy means everything. "I want people to love me, to see my potential as an actress," she says. "That's why it's nerve-racking. That's where the ulcers and butterflies come from. There's a lot of pressure."

Van Kamp has a trump card. Daisy is the gospel according to Krantz, delivered from the pulp-it of page-turning mass-audience trash, and Merete, at its core, rises from the degradation of being raped by her half brother to become the megabuck model for a cosmetics line. If anything can carry the film, it is Van Kamp's breathtaking beauty. As they say, the camera loves her. All the money and optical-effects wizardry in Lucasland couldn't create a bad angle on that Nordic face and hair. Indeed, as Merete recalls, Krantz herself confided to her recently: "In you they found Daisy, and I always thought it was impossible."

The Denmark-born daughter of a German ballerina and a Danish aluminum executive, Van Kamp moved from Paris to L.A. two years ago to switch from fashion to acting. She got her break when she didn't get the Rita Hayworth TV-bio role (Lynda Carter must now live down that one). Casting directors Toni Howard and Gail Eisenstadt sent her up for Daisy—and she beat out 700 wilted hopefuls. "I have no idea why," she says. But she notes several parallels with her character. Daisy was left alone young to make her way in the world and suffered traumatic losses. "My parents divorced when I was 8, I left home for Paris to model, with no friends. I came to L.A. with no friends or family. Daisy is strong and determined, and I'm that way. I won't compromise. I had fears, sure it is a scary world out there."

She sounds authoritative when she says, "Daisy is robbed of her illusions of everything wonderful in men after she gets raped. She becomes distant, as a shield, because she can't trust men."

Merete remembers similar, if less violent, scarring. "I definitely experienced how cruel men can be," she says of her Paris years. "I had my share of disillusionments with men. A lot of men have said about me what they say about Daisy, that she is cold, unapproachable." She cracks a cool smile. "Oh yeah, definitely, they've said that."

One man who surely doesn't feel that way now is horsebreeder-businessman Edward Nahem, 10 years her senior, whose home Van Kamp has shared for most of her L.A. years. He may be, as she puts it, "the wonderful man in my life now," but that's about all she'll say. In fact, she declines even to introduce him as he walks around their living room. "I'd like to keep my private life private, you know, mysterious," she murmurs. With a cocker spaniel named Garbo—and accents that shift from a lilting Scandinavian to Beverly Hills twang to upper-crust Brit—she's on her way. She's even got a politely vague answer for paparazzi gossip talk about film mogul Bob (Cotton Club) Evans, with whom she has been spotted around New York. "We have drinks. He's a friend. There's nothing more to it." She fits in Nahem's rustic home, surrounded by his dazzling collection of Oriental and American antiques. (The house, high over L.A., once belonged to Linda Evans.)

But there is a more accessible Merete—in un-Daisylike baggy sweatsuit, hair pulled back. She can exude a disarmingly droll and absurd humor, or play chameleon—from brooding gamine to coy tomboy. She can be alternately sultry, wry, vulnerable. How many horses does Eddie own? she is asked. "Leave his horses to him." What do you read besides scripts? "Books, poetry, whatever's happening at the time, you know?" Where will you be when Daisy airs? She sinks into a couch, smirks, turns her head sideways, blows cigarette smoke out twisted lips: "I'm thinking of going to Hong Kong actually, wait for things to cool down, then check the papers."

She more straightforwardly states that she paints; studies dance every morning; takes acting lessons; rides horses and owns a Thoroughbred named Frannie-Merete that she had bought with a girlfriend named Frannie (the horse just won her maiden race at Santa Anita); loves Italian food but considers any time she is in the kitchen "a diet because I don't cook"; commendably takes vocabulary-boosting lessons at Berlitz (her "develop" cutely rhymes with "antelope"); and practices fencing. "I love bladework," she purrs. "It gives you total control of the body, and it's like chess: You're outdoing somebody mindwise."

Hollywood is one game that should offer enough thrust-and-parry action. Van Kamp knows even a charmed showcase like Daisy doesn't ensure a future. Of her Daisy take, she says, "I didn't get rich off the film and I can't retire. I'm still a struggling actress looking for my next job."

Though that is not her problem now, Lindsay Wagner has been through some of Merete's struggles. Like her, she was a child of divorce and tried modeling. She can recall a 1973 movie that, with only seven months of acting behind her, she was expected to "carry" at just about Merete's age. "It was called Two People, and I was one of them," she says. "It was a fantastic, incredible thrill but, s—, yeah, there was pressure."

Of course, three years later she was TV's Bionic Woman, making up to $500,000 a year and a 12.5 percent take of Bionic Woman doll and toy-biz royalties. There were also two divorces—and a sense that the good life of L.A. wasn't getting any better.

The turning point for Wagner was her 1981 marriage to onetime Bionic Woman stunt coordinator Henry Kingi, now 39. Their son, Dorian, nearly 14 months, has been with his busy mom on four sets since his birth. She isn't just happy as a mother and wife now: She's bobbing and blissing somewhere up near the ceiling when she starts talking about it.

While Dorian toddles around a hotel suite in Toronto (where Wagner has filmed Martin's Day), she bursts into giddy celebrations of motherhood. Her words fly. "Dorian's been the best thing in the world for me. It's given me more inspiration and energy than I've ever had in my life. And I've never been more productive."

She and Kingi live high above the San Fernando Valley in Coldwater Canyon but "get away when there's any time to what I call our 'log castle' "—a two-bedroom retreat on 11 acres in the Oregon woods, with a small river cutting through the land.

On location in Toronto, Lindsay keeps Dorian happy with a seven-foot collapsible tunnel—a spiraled wire covered with cloth, "like a giant Slinky," she says. She's got a nursemaid from home as well. Dorian stays in motor homes while Mom shoots scenes, and he sees Lindsay between takes and during breaks. "This is the most relaxed I've ever been on a set," she says. "Nothing throws me."

She still nurses Dorian every two or three hours—"and the doctor told me that burns up 1,800 calories a day." She says she'll wean him "when the baby's psyche and body are ready. I go along with that school."

Lindsay would like to take a crack at romantic comedy and doing some TV with educative value. She has tried developing a series reflecting her belief in holistic healing—the balance of body, mind and spirit. It's the only way, she says, she'd accept another series. Four times, though, ABC has snuffed out the pilot light before going to series. "They wanted an action, 8 p.m. show for me," she says. "Safe, I'm-gonna-shoot-ya-if-ya-don't-eat-your-granola type stuff. My concepts were 10 o'clock shows."

Dorian, however, provides a 24-hour slot for Lindsay's health programs. At home she is "mostly vegetarian," and the boy has never eaten red meat or sugar. Her "heavy-duty pancakes contain whole grains, wheat germ, bran and oats—actually, they're not bad. For his birthday, instead of cake and ice cream, we served popcorn, fruit and carrot cake with very little honey," she smiles proudly.

As careful as she is with Dorian, it has not been easy to deal with the risks of husband Henry's work since parenthood. In fact, she says, he has quit his full-time job as stunt coordinator on Dukes of Hazzard and, just recently, The A-Team. He wants now to take on more acting and less stunt-work. As a father the stakes have grown too high for the dangers. "That's why he's phasing out," she says. "He did some pretty hairy things where I was real happy to get the call at the end of the day."

Wagner would also like to put together children's stories for television—which she would read—because she fears today's TV-tethered kids are growing up with no imagination. "They won't sit down and read," she says. But even if they did, chances are the networks wouldn't help. "They just aren't in business to change the world," she laments.

Yet it's clear the richly escapist world of Judy Krantz has had its impact on TV. "It's a Rocky-type thing," explains Lindsay, "a woman who starts with nothing, ends up rich and powerful or sexually aggressive. It's not personally appealing to me, but they're buying it like crazy out there. For me Scruples was a career move, very important at that time in my life."

Whether Daisy pays off handsomely for Van Kamp, Wagner knows what her movie co-star, is going through. "It's hard to understand the amount and intensity of the energy coming at you," says Lindsay. "There's a whole chain of command from the star down, and everybody's got his finger poking in the back of the guy in front of him. They're constantly shoving you out in front to sell it. Bottom line—if it bombs, it bombs on the star. Merete will have to take a hard look at this industry and realize she can't let the pressure affect her work. You get too crazed, then you can't perform."

Van Kamp's got it all ahead of her. Marriage, children, she says, are at least seven or eight years away, but even now she can admire a star like Wagner who has gone for it all—including the place and the passion to get away from it all. "I absolutely prefer to live the quiet life," Merete says. "I enjoy hanging out alone. I go home to Denmark and it's out in the middle of nowhere. You have to have a place like that to go bananas every once in a while. That's what lets you keep on going." The urge that keeps her going for now, though, is not to leave Hollywood but to take it.

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