A Newly Trim Liz Taylor Joins the Over-50 Movie Queen Rush to the Glamour and Gold of Tv Soaps

updated 07/09/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/09/1984 01:00AM

By all accounts, it was a brand-new Elizabeth Taylor who walked onto the set of Hotel to film the soap's season opener. Gone were the much publicized alcohol and prescription-drug addiction problems she kicked at the Betty Ford Center near Palm Springs; gone was the unflattering extra poundage that made her the butt of Joan Rivers' jokes. Gone, too, was the depression that dogged her during her 1982 divorce from Sen. John Warner, her ill-fated run in Private Lives with ex-husband Richard Burton and her unsuccessful attempt to establish a theater production company. The Liz who whipped through the six-and-a-half-day Hotel shoot was a size-8 blonde who showed up on time, knew her lines and charmed the cast and crew.

Not that her guest-star stint was without its snafus. The welcome she received, it seems, was an inappropriate reflection of her living-legend status: Where were the toadies, the stroking, the perks? On Broadway her producer, Zev Bufman, gave her a Norwegian-fox fur and a Rolls-Royce. Okay, she did get to keep the 11-piece, $25,000-plus Hotel wardrobe designed by Dynasty costumer Nolan Miller, and she did rate a motor home on the set and a private chauffeur to and from. But that didn't mean she wasn't piqued because producer Aaron Spelling allegedly was too busy to hold her hand through a press conference (which Liz later canceled). The show's hurry-up schedule, necessitated by an anticipated Directors Guild strike, precluded such niceties.

Some sources claimed that the 52-year-old Liz, now engaged to Mexican attorney Victor Luna, 56, didn't want to meet the press anyway. "She's very nervous," said episode co-writer Jo LaMond, "and it's like going up for a new job—you don't want to talk to anyone until you get through it." Indeed, after the press conference plans were made public, Taylor sent word that she would decline to take questions and decreed that photographers would have to stand rather than kneel (presumably to shoot her at a more slimming angle).

Reportedly, Taylor's take was $10,000 a day, plus expenses—at least $100,000, by one estimate. Nice, but not in the league of movie star salaries today. For the fee Spelling received what an increasing number of TV producers are getting when they invest in such movie queen manqués as Jane Wyman, Lana Turner and Joan Collins: star quality that attracts viewers, bolsters ratings and makes even the trashiest tearjerkers respectable. "These ladies give a series a shot in the arm," says an executive at Lorimar, which produces Dallas, Falcon Crest and Knots Landing. "They add glamour."

And glamour is something denied these divas in Hollywood features, where 25 is often considered over the hill. If you can't flashdance like Jennifer Beals, take close-ups like Brooke Shields or swim like Daryl (Splash) Hannah, the alternative is usually playing grandmas, dipsos or harridans. The TV soaps represent a new chance for the old guard. Joan Collins, once dismissed in movies as "the poor man's Elizabeth Taylor," has now nearly surpassed her in popularity. No wonder Liz was attracted. "The lady doesn't need the money," says pal Peter Law-ford (another recent vet of the Betty Ford Center). "I hope she gets her own series. Maybe she'll be looking for a male co-star."

As Taylor discovered, though, glamour today is generally confined to the wardrobe department. The tube's marathon hours and breakneck pace can be jarring for someone accustomed to the more stately rhythms of moviemaking. And most producers understandably don't take time to coddle stars. "You have to check your ego at the soundstage door," says Dorothy McGuire, 65, who became one of the crew on CBS' The Young and the Restless in early June.

Still, it's not bad work if you can get it. Taylor, for example, had a script written just for her, loosely based on the Oscar-nominated film The Dresser. It centers on the relationship between an aging actress and her male confidant, played (per Liz's request) by longtime pal Roddy McDowall; the two co-starred for the first time in Lassie Come Home in 1943. And Hotel's staff seems to have made every effort to make Liz comfortable. Cameraman Robert Moreno told her how pretty she'd look onscreen, and director Vincent McEveety made sure scenes were so scheduled that she wouldn't spend idle hours on the set.

Taylor, in turn, won over her coworkers. "Everyone in the world was warning about the problems we were going to have," says executive producer Doug Cramer, "but I've seen far lesser stars who were 50 times the problem. Her demands were nothing."

"She impressed everyone," adds producer Henry Colman. "There's a charisma, but she's as down to earth as anyone I've met. When she did her most dramatic scene, she just knocked it off perfectly, tears and all."

The Taylor that Hotel's cast encountered was "the Liz of 15 years ago," says Cramer. "She got applause from all those watching the first dailies. Everyone on the lot wanted to see them...we could have sold tickets."

Like Joan Collins and Lana Turner before her, Taylor was dressed for the part of glamour queen, senior division. Her ensembles included an orchid peignoir set that enhanced her fabled eyes, a beaded ruby gown, a sable stole and a green-velvet lounging robe with embroidered sleeves—"all fitted to her new figure," according to Miller's assistant Donna Peterson, who worked with Liz in 1958 on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. "I think she's lost more than 40 pounds." Although the svelte Liz told Peterson "I'm starving all the time," the star seems not to have suffered unduly—lunch one day was rare roast beef with sliced tomatoes, and she raved about a low-cal orange soufflé her chef (headquartered in Liz's Bel Air home) devised.

There have been hints that, like other glamour queens of the past, Taylor will become a semi-permanent fixture on the tube. Cramer denies that Spelling is tailoring anything for Liz. If she does join the ranks of the resurrected, it will not be the first time. After six husbands, 42 years in show business and several brushes with death, Liz Taylor has learned to prevail.

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