Hail, Hail, the Gang's Almost All Here to Film a Steamy Return to New England's Hotbed of Sin

updated 05/06/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/06/1985 01:00AM

For half a decade, on over one million feet of film, through 514 mostly fanatically followed biweekly episodes, the denizens of ABC's Peyton Place romped round and round the sexual maypole of a small New England town where the seething never stopped. The late Grace Metalious started it all with her 1956 potboiler (there was an Oscar-nominated movie version a year later), but it took a TV cast that included the studly Ryan O'Neal (as rich boy Rodney Harrington) and Mia Farrow (as the petite fawn Allison Mackenzie Harrington) to flesh out those ripe details of star-crossed love, illicit sex, unwanted pregnancies and catastrophic medical accidents that made up America's first nighttime soap opera. From 1964 through 1969, Peyton Place was, as Johnny Carson once put it, "the first TV series delivered in a plain wrapper."

And so, some 16 years after the show went off the air due to rock-bottom ratings, nine original cast members are gathering to film a two-hour NBC movie, Peyton Place: The Next Generation (airing May 13). The place, just 55 miles from Dallas' Southfork, is Waxahachie, Texas (yup, the same town where Sally Field found her Places in the Heart). Why Waxahachie? The city (pop. 14,624) offered better weather than New England for filming in the middle of February, experienced technical crews from Dallas and a town square with no skyscrapers cluttering up the background. The movie is still set in New England, but some folks are hoping that Texas charm will rub off in the ratings. Why shouldn't the grand-daddy of nighttime soaps cash in on the current success of Dallas and Dynasty? Nobody's talking series yet. They're waiting for the Nielsens. But several actors have their fingers crossed.

On this 50°F day in Waxahachie, the cast converges on the town square. The old gang includes Dorothy Malone (the saintly Constance Mackenzie Carson), a now silver-haired Ed Nelson (once the bachelor medic Dr. Michael Rossi), cool-eyed Barbara Parkins (that loose-lovin' Betty Anderson, known simply as the hottest female on the show) and Ruth Warrick (the fiery—in more ways than one—Mrs. Danvers of Peyton Mansion). On hand as well are Tim O'Connor (Elliot Carson), Chris Connelly (Norman Harrington), Evelyn Scott (Ada Jacks), Pat Morrow (Rita Jacks) and James Douglas (Steven Cord). O'Neal refused to join up and Farrow was not asked; the producers assumed an automatic no.

Because the production company destroyed the original set, a new Peyton Square was built in the Texas dust. In the previous week, workmen threw a coat of fresh paint on the buildings, erected a Puritan stock, slapped the Peyton Clarion in the newspaper racks and called it New England.

The cast members—heavier and grayer with two decades etched on their faces—keep assuring one another that they scarcely look a day older than they did when they left the show. Says Ruth Warrick, 69 (a/k/a All My Children's Phoebe Wallingford), "There's more warmth and closeness than I imagined. I feel like I'm going to a spa." Adds Parkins, 42, "It doesn't feel like 16 years have gone by—more like five. It's bizarre, like the twilight zone."

There is little "Gosh, too bad Mia and Ryan couldn't make it" talk. As Warrick sees it, Woody and Farrah can keep 'em. "They were problem children," she says. "Very self-involved. Ryan was blatantly ambitious."

Ah, ambition—that ache so often gnawing at actors. As a group, most of the Peyton Placers continued to act—but only Warrick, Farrow, O'Neal and Nelson have maintained the kind of recognition the series gave them. After Malone took the bus out of town, she returned to Dallas to nurse her aged parents and to raise her daughters—Mimi, 24, and Diane, 22—as a single mother. Malone, 60, says that her fan mail sustained her. "They kept me believing in myself. I haven't done anything since that they have seen and I still get 15 letters a day." (The show is in reruns on USA Cable.)

Like her character, restless Betty Anderson, Barbara Parkins knew that there was more to life than Peyton Place. Since then she has lived in Paris, London and Bali, getting married to (and divorced from) a French importer along the way. She welcomes the chance to be seen again on American TV. "I'm glad to return to Peyton Place." She should be. Parkins' wardrobe includes a cobalt-blue suede dress, a white silk gown and a tweed jacket with a fur stole. "This time Betty is the queen bee," says Barbara. "I'm Stella Stunning!"

For Nelson, 55, who plays Sen. Mark Denning on CBS' Capitol, returning to Peyton Place has a more practical allure. The father of six, he says candidly, "I have to work. I can't wait for the plums." Peyton Place: The Next Generation isn't just a title to Nelson—it's real life. His actor-son, Chris Nelson, 30, plays his TV son, Dr. Rossi Jr.

The younger Nelson is just one of the half-dozen new recruits needed to keep the Peyton Place maypole flashing with nubile and squeezable bodies tugging at the ribbons of sex, murder and hatred. John (Dallas) Beck, 42, plays a mysterious newcomer named Dorian Blake. A young, blond ballerina named Marguerite Hickey, 22, shows up as illegitimate Allison Mackenzie's illegitimate daughter Megan. (Could it be genetic, all this out-of-wedlock-ness?) To keep her and a younger sister occupied, there's a new batch of Harrington hunks, including Joey and Dana, played respectively by Tony (no relation to Zorba) Quinn, 21, and Bruce Greenwood, 27. If only Grace Metalious had lived to see her characters giving birth to new ones.

Leaning against the Peyton Place Home Center and Hardware Store, Quinn reads aloud from a copy of Peyton Place that he has just purchased for 50 cents at a Waxahachie thrift shop. A curious, adoring crowd of Texans gather around to hear that immortal beginning: "Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate but fickle..." Quinn flips through the book, complaining, "I thought there was more sex in this." He then comes upon one of the many passages that has made Peyton Place so beloved in the back pews of catechism classes and during roll call in scout meetings. "Bite me," Quinn's voice sings out in the Waxahachie town square. "Hurt me a little. Give me pain!" Could this be the voice of the American public, moaning for a return to Peyton Place?

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