By the late-1970s, the classic era of the traditional Hollywood studio system had virtually ceased to exist. Almost all of the major studios no longer had a roster of actors under contract that they would groom for stardom. The one exception to this was Universal Studios, which continued to maintain a program in order to develop new talent under the auspices of Monique James, Vice President of New Talent for the studio. Monique James worked in collaboration with Eleanor Kilgallen, who was Universal's executive for New Talent on the East Coast, in order to discover and nurture the careers of promising young actors. While talking with actors through the years, I've heard the names Monique James and Eleanor Kilgallen mentioned many times. Whereas Kilgallen has always been described as warm and nurturing, the impression I have had of Monique James was that she could be a very powerful, intimidating woman who would single-handedly determine whether an actor worked or not at Universal. I've had more than one actor tell me, if Monique liked you, then you worked a lot at Universal. If she didn't like you, then your chances of working there were slim to none, which was unfortunate for them since Universal was, for many decades, the most prolific producer of television shows in Hollywood. As I understand it, Monique James and Eleanor Kilgallen were very selective in terms of who they would place under contract at Universal. Some of their most notable discoveries included Sharon Gless, Lindsay Wagner, Susan St. James, Katharine Ross, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Kim Cattrall.
Another Monique James/Eleanor Kilgallen discovery who made good on the faith that they had in her was Ana Alicia, the talented and intelligent brunette from El Paso, Texas who used her time at Universal as a launching pad for a very successful career in television that started in the late 1970s, continued throughout the 1980s, and extended into the mid 1990s. Ana Alicia is best remembered for starring as Melissa Agretti on the long-running prime time soap "Falcon Crest" for almost eight seasons. After "Falcon Crest," Ana Alicia made a conscious decision to take an extended sabbatical from her career and focus on a family life. For the last two decades, she has been married to TV producer Gary Benz and been busy raising a family. In light of the fact that her youngest child is about to start college in the Fall, Ana Alicia is now busy planning a return to her acting career. She recently consented to an in-depth interview with Hill Place Blog to discuss her days as a Universal contract player, as well as share her memories of appearing on the daytime soap opera "Ryan's Hope," her co-starring role in the slasher horror favorite "Halloween II" (1981), her many years on "Falcon Crest," and her experiences starring in the moving drama "Romero" (1989) opposite Raul Julia. I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Ana Alicia for graciously and generously opening her heart and memories for this interview. A special Thank You is also in order for Thomas Pucher of the FalconCrest.org website for helping to arrange this interview.
Ana Alicia Ortiz was born in Mexico City and emigrated with her mother and siblings to El Paso, Texas when she was a young child after her father passed away. She studied at Wellesley College for a period of time before transferring to the University of Texas at El Paso in order to study theatre arts and hone her craft while working in dinner theatres in the area. After she graduated from the University of Texas, she moved to Los Angeles in order to pursue an acting career. She recalls that "I had come to Los Angeles because I couldn't decide whether I should go to law school since it was the practical thing to do. And so I came out that summer just to check out Hollywood so I would be able to know for sure. I got a waitress job and I was eating beans and pork franks and living in this little dumpy place right behind the Chinese Theatre. Then I decided to go find an agent so I took some pictures with a little bit of money that my brother had given me, which was $100. And so I just started walking the pavement and I walked up to an agent's office. His name was Carlos Alvarado and I walked in and I said 'I'm considering you being my agent.' (laughs) And he said 'Well, you have so much gall you're probably going to be very successful! Let me see what I can do with you.'"
Ana Alicia's first big break came in 1977 when she landed a one-year contract role on the ABC daytime soap "Ryan's Hope." As she recalls, "Carlos Alvarado called me a few weeks later to go to an audition for 'Ryan's Hope.' And, coincidentally, a friend who was an actor in El Paso, when I was doing dinner theatre there, had been on 'Ryan's Hope' two years before. He had a small walk-on role in the opening show and he told me to watch the day it premiered. So I had watched the show two years before and I remember telling my mother 'One day I'm going to be on this show.' So, anyway, Carlos sends me off to this audition, and I met Joel Thurm, who was one of the heads of casting at ABC. I didn't have a lot of fancy clothes, and I walked in in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. He was gonna put me on film, so he said 'Let me let you borrow my sweater.' So I borrowed his sweater and he said 'Now you have to say something about yourself, like what movies you've done and who you've worked with.' And I hadn't done films or television up to that time, so I looked in the camera and I said 'Hi, I'm Ana Alicia. I'm an actress and I love it!' (laughs) So I did the reading, he filmed me and he said 'We'll know in a few days, a couple of weeks, or whatever.' And so sure enough, a week or two later, I get home and my agent calls me and he said 'You'd better sit down" and I go 'Why?' He said, 'I thought you told me you did a good job on that audition?' And I said, "I think I did.' And he goes, 'Well, I gotta tell you, they just called me and you're flying to New York in two days to start working on 'Ryan's Hope.'"
Ana Alicia played Alicia Nieves on "Ryan's Hope," a nurse who dated nice guy cop Bob Reid (Earl Hindman) and became involved in the lives of the show's titular Ryan clan during her tenure on the show from March 1977 through July 1978. Once she started working on "Ryan's Hope," Ana Alicia encountered some initial challenges with her role, "The weird thing that happened when I read for the role, I didn't read with any accent at all, and I was never told that I would have to have any accent. When I got there, the director took one look at me and said to the producer, 'She's got to have an accent. She doesn't look Puerto Rican.' So they asked, 'Can you do an accent?' and I said 'I don't know' because we were about to shoot! But I was feeling so grateful to be there and too un-knowledgeable to say 'Hey, you know what? I don't feel comfortable. It doesn't feel right to me, I didn't prepare this.' So I just did it. I just jumped into it. And it was so awkward for me because it wasn't natural and I felt so bad about that, about the whole situation. So, gradually, throughout the year they let me drop the accent. (laugh) And it had to be, like, really gradual, you know, and so after a year I left with barely any accent left!"
Even though she was only on "Ryan's Hope" for just over a year, Ana Alicia still has vivid memories and deep respect for her colleagues on the show: "I remember all of them really well because they were good New York actors with a strong work ethic so it was a team effort. It was really a wonderful experience. I loved Ilene Kristen. She is just so creative and just so imaginative and so vulnerable. Just her freeness, she was so free. I think she taught me how to play different sides of a character and not to be intimidated when you're playing someone that is really out there. I really admired her so, without really knowing, I think by osmosis, I picked up some of her skills and I humbly say that because she's INCREDIBLY talented. I remember Earl Hindman as the sweetest man in the whole world. It was so easy to work with him because he just made it easy. It's great to know that he had such a success later in prime time with 'Home Improvement' because he is the kind of man who would have really appreciated it. I liked Kate Mulgrew immensely, but I think she intimidated me because she was so comfortable in her own skin. She didn't worry about anything, she was not affected by anybody. She just did her work--came in, came out--and she was looked upon by everyone as a key element in the show. And she deserved her success, she worked hard for it. When she was cast in that role initially, I think the writers fell in love with this girl. And you could tell by the way they wrote for her. I also want to talk about Malcolm Groome, because I was such a fan of Malcolm's. He was really one of my closest friends and when he moved out here to California we stayed close all those years and we actually studied together with Kim Stanley. He was a wonderful actor and just really a warm, caring human being. He actually, I think, more than anybody on that show reached out to me, which I so appreciated. The other person who was my friend on the show was Catherine Hicks, she'd invite me to her apartment in New York and we'd have dinner there because we shared Catholicism in our backgrounds. So we would talk a lot and she was just very, very nice to me."
|Universal Studios c. 1978, when Ana Alicia started her contract.|
Ana Alicia soon moved to Los Angeles in late 1978 to join the roster of players at Universal and also began attending Southwestern University Law School at night. Despite her legal education, she did not try to negotiate better terms for herself at Universal because, "money was never an issue for me. The time commitment sometimes was, but I think it was more than anything I was able to read the contract, understand the terms and make sure that there was nothing in them that went against what I wanted. But I did not want to negotiate for more money. That was not the thing, it was more just my creative life that concerned me." Despite not being concerned about remuneration, Ana Alicia maintains that the Universal contract players "were getting a really good salary at the time. I think it was a three-year contract...and was it a $1,000 a week? I'm just trying to remember. It wasn't shabby. I had an apartment and I traveled. It was good money."
Ana Alicia remains grateful to Monique James and Eleanor Kilgallen for giving her an opportunity to establish a career in Hollywood and found them to be good mentors and role models. She remembers Monique James as "a loving and intimidating individual, just like many really smart and intelligent women. I remember walking into her office, the first time I met her--whereas Eleanor was a much more accessible individual--Monique sat in the back of the room behind a big desk and she was very nicely groomed and didn't she have kind of a British accent? I remember walking into that room, hearing that voice, and being--not intimidated--but being in awe of her. And just feeling like I'm the luckiest person in this whole world that Monique and Eleanor thought enough of me to give me a contract. She was always very supportive of me."
Ana Alicia recalls that, once she was part of their roster of rising young actors, Monique James worked hard to promote her career at Universal, "Monique put me up for some very big projects at Universal. God, there was that big project at Universal where they went back in time...'Somewhere in Time' (1980) with Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve. You know, Jane is a little bit older than me, and I think they were thinking of giving it to Jane and maybe they were negotiating with Jane at the time. And so, therefore, because they were still negotiating, they brought me in to audition because they felt I had some of the qualities that she had. It was extraordinary to be in the presence of all of those people and to be considered for major projects such as that."
Even though studio contracts were almost non-existent by the late 1970s, and many actors expressed gratitude that they weren't under contract for fear of being confined in their careers, Ana Alicia doesn't view her time at Universal as confining at all but as an extremely positive experience that stressed hard work over frills. This may be due to the fact that, "It was the end of the studio system. It's not like they were giving us acting classes or dancing classes or press releases and dinners with other Universal players. It wasn't that at all. It had become a thing where we had become practical for the studio to have as a roster of actors under contract--and we fulfilled a need, and they treated us well--but it was no longer the glamorous times."
Another difference Ana Alicia noticed between her contract at Universal, and the fabled classic era of Hollywood, was that the environment at Universal was not conducive to building a sense of camaraderie among the contract players. She admits that she did not get to know all of her peers at Universal, and recalls that the primary opportunity that she encountered them was when they were auditioning for the same roles. "In the time I was there, the contract players were never put together at any functions. What would happen is that I would be at an audition for something and then I would see Jamie Lee Curtis kind of in an alcove waiting to go in, because you auditioned for EVERYTHING at Universal. It's funny because at that time 'Halloween' had already come out, and I just thought that that was the best scary movie that I had ever seen because there was no blood! It wasn't gory, it was just genuinely scary and suspenseful! It was so well done and so I was already a little in awe of her. I would say two or three words to Jamie because I was very shy. I never went into anybody's space. I also met Kim Cattrall at auditions for Universal shows as well. Kim Cattrall and I sometimes would go up for the same parts, although she, I think, was a little bit older than me, or at least looked a little bit older than me, but still I think we were a little bit similar in type. So I met her and Jamie and I think those were the only two that I actually met while I was there."
During her time at Universal, Ana Alicia was occasionally loaned out to appear in projects outside of the studio. She appeared in the Warner Brothers-produced 1979 Western miniseries "The Sacketts" starring Sam Elliott, Tom Selleck, Glenn Ford, and Ben Johnson, based on Louis L'Amour's novel, as well as the 1980 oil wildcatting miniseries "Roughnecks" starring Steve Forrest and Vera Miles. It was while she was on location in Arizona for "The Sacketts" that it became apparent to Ana Alicia that she might be biting off more than she could chew by attending law school at night, "I was still in law school while I was shooting 'The Sacketts.' I was attending law school at night and then I worked during the day at Universal. But then when I got 'The Sacketts,' I had to travel on location to Tucson, Arizona. And it was just too hard because my entire luggage was all my law books and that's when I started to realize I really had a hard time focusing on both things because both were so consuming. I do think Monique and Eleanor knew I was going to law school at night and I do think they were supportive. You know, I think they probably inside their hearts thought, 'How long can she continue this?' But it wasn't something that I was hiding and I think in all good faith how could they ask me to leave something that wasn't getting in the way of my work at Universal? I never compromised my acting work, I was compromising my law school education, so I had to make a decision. It was an extremely difficult decision to leave law school and focus on my acting career full time."
Ana Alicia appeared on many Universal shows from that era as a guest star. Her first appearance for Universal was as a mentally disturbed motocross racer in an early 1979 episode of "The Hardy Boys." She remembers how she "had such a crush on him--on both of them, Parker Stevenson and Shaun Cassidy! (laugh) Oh my goodness, it was the first time I was working around actors my own age, you know, and that show was SO much fun. I got to ride a motorcycle, and Parker and Shaun were just so adorable."
She also enjoyed guest starring on "Battlestar Galactica for similar reasons. On that she show she played Aurora, the long-lost love interest of Dirk Benedict's Starbuck, who was now leading a mutiny against the leader of a Colonial ship. While reminiscing about Dirk Benedict, she recalls how she "had another crush on him! (laugh) I had such a crush on him and he was awfully sweet and I just remember having a great time when I was working on that show. I wasn't very star-struck, I just was more infatuated with some of the actors, but my brother came to visit me and he came on the set and he was so star struck with meeting Lorne Greene he couldn't speak. Could not speak when I introduced them and it was so hard because he had seen 'Bonanza' his whole life and I was younger so it didn't have the same impact on me and I'm also an actress in the business. But, for my brother who is from Texas it was just 'WOW!' It was exciting to be able to do something to make my family feel so excited."
Ana Alicia next appeared as a damsel in distress kidnapped by Richard Lynch and held hostage on the "Vegas in Space" episode of "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century." Continuing in the same train of thought, while discussing her Universal leading men, Ana Alicia recalls Gil Gerard, the star of "Buck Rogers" as another "huge crush. And he had just met his future wife, Connie Sellecca, I believe. They had just started dating and I remember that Gil could be a big flirt, that's all he was and it didn't go beyond flirtation because he was a gentleman. But it was just for a young girl going onto that set, and having the opportunity to work with a big, good-looking star of a TV show, you know, like I said, it was a big wonderful time in my life that I'm glad you're helping me remember! (laughs)"
For her next appearance on a Universal-produced sci-fi series, Ana Alicia guest starred on the "Battlestar Galactica" spinoff, "Galactica 1980," playing a completely different character than the one she played in her earlier "Galactica" incarnation. In contrast to Aurora, on "Galactica 1980" she played the sweet and naive teenage daughter of a Hispanic family of sharecroppers who are befriended by colonial warriors from the Galactica who are on earth as part of a reconnaissance mission to help develop mankind's technology to fight the Cylons. At first, Ana Alicia recalled nothing about this episode until suddenly remembering, "Oh my God! Did I wear my hair in braids? Now I remember that! (laugh) It was a very sweet story and she was a very sweet character. I just remember it was shot on a farm and I just remember the sweetness of that particular character. You know, I was very young at the time and I could play very young characters. I think she was supposed to be 16 or something, she was just very young, and she was very different than the previous 'Galactica' character I played, Aurora."
Ana Alicia played a more light-hearted role guest-starring on "The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo" as the concerned director of a retirement home trying to prevent elderly Jeanette Nolan from detonating explosive devices throughout the small town of Orly, Georgia in retaliation against individuals she blamed for her personal misfortune. She recalls how "they always had me wearing red running around after Jeanette throughout the episode. It was so silly, but it was just fun to be on that show. And Claude Akins, Brian Kerwin and Mills Watson were all super nice to work with. They took me on in their little directors chairs and they would just tease me all the time, and they were like big brothers. It was really a fun set to work on."
Ana Alicia next guest-starred on an episode of "Quincy, M.E." as a nurse in a hospital where a young physician (A. Martinez), an old friend of Jack Klugman's Quincy, is accused of incompetence in the death of a patient. As a young actress starting out, Ana Alicia found working with Jack Klugman a particularly inspiring experience. She recalls that, "I liked Jack Klugman a lot. I just liked him a lot. He was the first person I think I worked with who was kind of a heavy-weight in his work. He took it seriously. He had fun on that show and he brought humor to his role, but he WORKED, you know. He just knew what he was doing. You could tell that he was prepared and that he was serious and that you'd better be on your mark when you work with him and you'd better know what you're doing. I sincerely liked him. I had a lot of respect for him."
When Ana Alicia made her last guest appearance on television under her Universal contract, it was for the light-hearted adventure series "BJ and the Bear" starring Greg Evigan. In the episode, she played a heroic Mexican girl who assists Evigan's character in his efforts to rescue Seven Lady Truckers, employed by his trucking firm, who have been kidnapped by drug kingpins. In her big scene, she smashes his Kenworth semi through the gates of the drug lord's compound as part of the rescue effort to save the lady truckers. She has surprisingly vivid memories of working on that show, "Of course I remember that one! Oh my God, talk about a crush! Greg was just adorable! I mean, adorable in every way. I think he was married at the time, which was such a HUGE disappointment. He was so sweet and he took care of me on the shoot and he was very kind to me. He made sure the lighting people took care of me and he made sure if I needed another take that I could get it. He was really generous to his fellow actors. Years later, he actually came into my husband's office one day to pitch a show, and they told me who it was and I went 'Oh my God! Greg's in your office!' He was a guy you just didn't forget because he was so unbelievably gorgeous and generous and you just wanted the best things for him."
Most of Ana Alicia's guest-starring roles at Universal were on shows created or produced by Glen Larson. Even though she was a ubiquitous presence on many of his shows, she readily admits, "'I never dealt with Glen face-to-face. I remember maybe briefly meeting him when I was being cast, but very, very quickly. He just had to give the approval to have me on his shows. I never had a difficult time with the producers at Universal. I was very well protected. The contract players at Universal were very well protected by Monique and Eleanor. I mean, NOBODY messed around with their people." Ana Alicia also has fond memories of the directors she worked with at Universal, particularly Sidney Hayers. "Sidney liked me and I liked him. And I remember he was a VERY professional director, very serious about his work, and he knew his craft. He cast me in 'Condominium' because he liked whatever essence I brought to the part. He was supportive, but he didn't baby me or anybody else. He expected you to go do your job."
Ana Alicia enjoyed her most complex and nuanced role for Universal on the disaster TV movie/miniseries "Condominium" (1980), where she played emotionally fragile Thelma Messenkott, trapped in an unhappy marriage to middle-aged Jack Messenkott (Don Galloway), who doesn't share Thelma's love and appreciation for the natural surroundings at the titular Silver Sands Condominium complex. Thelma spends much of her time exploring the nature and greenery around her, rather than joining her husband at playing tennis, and Ana Alicia does good work at exploring the sensitive and vulnerable emotions Thelma experiences in the course of the movie. She enjoyed playing Thelma "because she was so out there, and so disconnected to what was going on around her. All the money and intrigue didn't matter to her, she just wanted to be with nature. And I just remember what I did is that I went up Big Bear to help prepare for this role. I rented a canoe and I went out on the lake and I stayed in a cabin by myself. I immersed myself in her life in a way I rarely have done since then. And it's interesting now that I'm going back into acting, I'm learning how to prepare for roles by living parallel lives. It was so easy to do that for that role and go into her imagined life and daydream about her. So that was really a pleasurable experience because I felt like I was her most of the time on that film. Being that my character was very isolated, because I was living that kind of life, and that's innately who I am anyway because I'm very much a recluse if I'm allowed to be, I just kind of stayed to myself while making 'Condominium.'"
Nevertheless, Ana Alicia readily admits that she "enjoyed working with the cast as a whole. Don Galloway, who played my older husband, was always kind. And everybody on that show was really, really nice because it was such a large cast and the crew was wonderful. And I loved the Florida locations on that film. I came from El Paso, Texas and I had never been anywhere and the thing about acting is that there is a camaraderie in which you really collaborate and work together so it's a very, very warm kind of experience when you're on location and you really feel like a family. I was a little intimidated by Barbara Eden because she was such a presence and she was really strong. She was always nice but I always tended to stay away from--unless the stars were cute boys!--I always tended to stay away from the female stars because I just innately knew it would have to be difficult for them to accept, as a whole, a young ingenue. So I just gave them a lot of space. You know, if they welcomed me in, if they asked me in, then I would do that."
Even though Ana Alicia was happy during her time at Universal, her tenure there abruptly ended when the studio decided to phase out their talent program in late 1980/early 1981. The only actor that was retained was Sharon Gless, and that was because she was doing the "House Calls" TV series with Wayne Rogers for Universal. However, Gless eventually left the studio in 1982 to star on "Cagney and Lacey." Ana Alicia recalls that the end of Universal's talent program was "an economic decision on the part of the studio. I was under contract with them for a relatively short time before they started closing it down and they had to pay me the rest of my contract. I believe the original contract was for three years, but I don't believe they had to pay for the whole three years. But it was still very nice that they bought me out." Even though she would miss working with Monique James and Eleanor Kilgallen, she also admits that "I had saved a little bit of money so I knew I had some time. And it was kind of exciting to be a free agent. You know, when you're that young you're not scared of much. I was excited for the opportunities that were going to be headed my way."
One of the most notable jobs Ana Alicia landed right after leaving Universal in 1981 was as doomed nurse Janet Marshall at Haddonfield Memorial Hospital in the feature film "Halloween II" (1981), the sequel to John Carpenter's 1978 horror classic. Janet is one of the nurses who tends to an injured Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) while she is recovering from wounds sustained in the first "Halloween." Over the course of the story, Janet and the other hospital personnel fall victim to Michael Myers. After having admired the original "Halloween," and being in awe of Jamie Lee Curtis while they were under contract to Universal, Ana Alicia now found herself co-starring with Curtis in the sequel. Ironically, "Halloween II" was released by Universal, but Ana Alicia insists that this was a coincidence and that her Universal contract had nothing to do with her landing this role: "What happened was that I was in an acting class at the time, taught by Milton Katselas at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, and the director that John Carpenter had picked to direct 'Halloween II,' Rick Rosenthal, was in my class and he asked me to read for him. In fact, there were three or four of us in that class that he cast, including Leo Rossi and Gloria Gifford. And that's how I got into that movie. The experience of shooting it was a lot of fun. Rick is a wonderful director and a wonderful human being. And many of my cast members were people I knew from class and were really wonderful to work with. The other actors were terrific as well. Pamela Susan Shoop is a very nice person and I remember it was very hard for her to do that nude scene where she gets killed. It's very typical for an actor: you sign up for a project, and then it's only later that it hits you what it really is. That nude scene had to have been really hard for her, and I really felt for her when she had to prepare to do it. Again, I didn't get to know Jamie that well, even though we had a couple of scenes together, but she was a very nice person to work with."
Like Pamela Susan Shoop, Ana Alicia also endured her own set of challenges while filming her death scene for "Halloween II." In the film, Janet goes to look for attending physician Dr. Mixter (Ford Rainey) in his office and finds him dead while seated at his desk. She backs away in horror into the arms of Michael Myers, who plunges a hypodermic needle into her temples, killing her. In real life, however, Ana Alicia ended up being injured while filming this sequence, "What happened in that scene was that when I get the shot in my head, in my eye, I'm supposed to collapse immediately, just collapse. So what they had done was put a mattress kind of thing on the ground so I could collapse onto the mattress. Well somehow we're shooting this scene and somebody had accidentally moved a desk into that area. So I was so into the scene, and I was so used to collapsing into the mattress, and not knowing what I know now to check everything, your whole surroundings, before you do this. And so when I collapsed, my head hit the corner of the desk full on with my eye, right at the corner of my eye. And so I said 'Oh shit!' and the director yelled 'Cut!' and I'm saying, 'Use it! Use it!' as I'm bleeding all over! I'm yelling 'Use it! Use it!' and Rick said 'We can't use it!' So he cuts, right?, and he comes up to me and my eye is open, you know, the corner of my eye is open, they don't know how bad it is because I'm bleeding all over the place. They send me off to the hospital and I wish I knew who the guy was who stitched me up because, for a little emergency room hospital, this guy really did a good job. It could have been SO much worse! And, then, because we shot backwards, I had to go and shoot the beginning of the show, all the scenes before my character got killed, with this HUGE blackened face. So if you notice in some of the scenes, you'll just see my profile. Like when I'm talking in front of the TV about, you know, saying about how this guy, Michael Myers, has been killing everybody, and talking to my friend Leo Rossi and we're both facing the screen, if you notice they only shoot one side of me. And then that's why we all had to do pickups later because I was extremely swollen, I had stitches in my face, you know, it was not pretty!"
|Ana Alicia sits in the front row, 3rd from the left, in this warm group photo of the cast and crew of "Halloween II"|
Despite her injury, Ana Alicia has very warm memories about the making of "Halloween II." Nevertheless, she acknowledges having personal qualms about the movie upon seeing the finished product. After having admired the original "Halloween" for its restraint and subtlety, she was not prepared for the increased level of violence in the sequel, "You have to understand, I was very young at the time when it came out and, as I said, I've always been very conservative. I remember watching it at the screening, and the only thing I felt, because I was such a goody-two shoes or whatever, that I was worried about all of the 9 year olds who were going to go see it because it was more violent than the first 'Halloween,' which I admired. And I felt so bad. For me it was really the violence that bothered me, but I think John Carpenter wanted that much more violence at the end of shooting. That's what I heard, you know, that he wanted to add more violence to make it different than the first one. I was there for some reshoots, where scenes were added to make it more violent, but I never really met Carpenter. I saw him on the set briefly, but I never really met him." Even though she had some initial concerns about the violence in "Halloween II," Ana Alicia deeply appreciates the level of fan interest in the film and acknowledges that it is one of the projects, along with "Falcon Crest," that she continues to be remembered for.
Eventually, Ana Alicia landed her signature role as Melissa Agretti on the hit CBS prime time soap "Falcon Crest," created by Earl Hamner, the esteemed creator and producer of "The Waltons." She joined the cast partway into the first season, starting with the fourteenth episode entitled "House of Cards" that aired March 12, 1982, and continued playing Melissa all the way into the beginning of the eighth season. Ana Alicia recalls that, before she was cast on "Falcon Crest," famed acting coach Milton Katselas at the Beverly Hills Playhouse had urged her to play roles like Maggie in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" after seeing her play more "virginal" type roles in class. Katselas told her, "You know, you're hiding something very powerful. You've got to do 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.' You've got to do dark kind of characters. You can do those characters." She then recalls how, after playing Maggie the Cat in Katselas' class, "This fabulous casting director, Doris Sabbagh, called me in for a role on 'Flamingo Road.' She'd never met me, but my agent submitted me for a role on that show. And 'Flamingo Road' was going to have a young, virginal character on as a regular. So I walked in and I sat down with her and, after reading this script I said to her, 'You know what? I really don't want to play this role.' (laughs) I said 'I've always played these very, very innocent characters and I would really like to play something more substantial. I just did 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.' I would love those kind of roles.' So she looked at me and she said 'You know what? If something comes up, I will call you because I cast other things. Don't you worry. I don't know what you're agent is going to say, but don't you worry!' So I called my agents and I said 'I don't want to do this role' and the agency, of course, didn't know what to do with me. Here is a regular role on a series, and I don't want to do it! (laughs) So they weren't speaking to me and I said to one of the agents, the one I was closest to, 'Let's go to lunch.' At lunch I said to her, 'Listen, I may be crazy, but I need somebody who is as crazy as I am. Are you that person?' And she said, 'OK, for awhile, I'll be as crazy as you are.'
|Earl Hamner, Creator and Executive Producer for Seasons 1 thru 5 of "Falcon Crest"|
Melissa was an engaging and compelling character throughout her run on "Falcon Crest." She possessed both good and bad qualities and Ana Alicia did a superb job illuminating both the villainous and the sympathetic qualities in Melissa. Ana Alicia remembers Melissa as "a great character to play, with all her different nuances and shadings. She was indeed the best part I ever played and she was my favorite character. I mean, I lived with her for so many years. In fact, I got to live all my fantasies while playing her. (laugh) All my fantasies and all my fears! The funny thing is, I always tried to give her very human qualities. The fact is, you just never know what comes across to people when you are acting on television. I just felt that she really wanted to be loved and she really needed to be loved so badly, you know? There was a part of her that I really, truly understood because when I was a little girl I remember experiencing that when I was very, very young, you know? So I appreciate how fans of the show really care about Melissa."
Decades later, Ana Alicia continues to have a high regard for the writers and producers who helped shape the Melissa character, particularly in its early years. She remembers the show's creator and original Executive Producer Earl Hamner as "just an amazing human being, amazing writer, amazing leader of the show. He was just extraordinary. With Earl at the helm, everybody who worked for and reported to Earl had to really step up and be as excellent as that kind of a person that he is. When he left the show, I was really sad. Those writers gave me unbelievable lines, you know, the most unbelievable killer lines. I got some great lines, but I think the best line of all time was the line as Lance and Melissa are getting married, and I announce that I'm pregnant, and he says 'It's not mine' and I put the piece of cake in his mouth and I say 'It is now.' One thing I do want to say, and I really mean this, is that we had an extraordinary group of writers. It started with Earl and there was Bob McCullough and his wife Suzanne, there was Ernie Wallengren and his parents, Claire Peterson and Rod Peterson. There was so many good writers, I was so blessed. Garner Simmons is another one I remember and later Jeff Freilich and Howard Lakin. I was just so blessed to be working with all of these writers, all of whose names I'm not remembering at this very moment, but we had a great group of writers and a great script supervisor, great costume and makeup people, talented lighting and cameramen, good producers starting from Earl and coming all the way down, you know. 'Falcon Crest' had a great crew working behind the scenes, and I want to acknowledge them all. It was really a collaborative affair, more like when you do stage, and that's why we all liked each other because nobody acted like the 'star.' Nobody! And Jane didn't put up with that from ANYBODY, and she didn't act like a star! She did her work."
Ana Alicia fondly recalls a humorous anecdote concerning writer/producer Robert McCullough, who contributed many scripts to the show during its early years: "Bob and his wife were always really nice to me, Billy Moses and I used to play tennis with them on location when we were up in Napa Valley, and Bob was always very supportive of my work on the show. There's a very funny story about Bob. While we were up in Napa, I had put on some weight, right? And Bob called me into his office one day. He said, 'Listen, I'm sitting here writing a scene for you. It's a fabulous, incredible scene where you're going to be in a bathing suit, you dive into the pool, you have this scene with Lorenzo, and it's a great scene. But you look like you've been eating too many bananas, you know, so you gotta do something about it, OK?' So I started jogging EVERY MORNING until they could fit me into this black leather bathing suit for the scene!"
In addition to the personnel already cited, Ana Alicia also credits the success of the Melissa character to the many directors who worked on the show through the years. Four directors, however, stand out in her mind as being particularly memorable for a variety of reasons, "Larry Elikann and I just clicked on a dark level. He would just have me do stuff on camera that was just much more broad than I would have ever done. The sexuality was rawer, he really went for that raw kind of stuff, you know, he was really fun to work with. He used to lay on the ground on his side and direct from the ground. There was also Bill Duke who is an exceptional actor and director. And he, again, would open up the darker side of Melissa. He was the one who was responsible for pulling my hair so tightly back at the wedding between Lance and Melissa. I would have never wanted to do that ever, expose my whole face, because I was so insecure about my face with my hair being pulled back so tightly. And he said, 'You're afraid of your own power, and Melissa isn't. And that's how I want her hair.' And he talked with the makeup and hair people about it and that's how they did my hair for that wedding. And it was so fabulous, when you see it, it was so fabulous. What he wanted was that aristocratic, European aura, you know, that loveline to come through and he got it! He was really wonderful to work with. I also loved Harry Harris, who was one of our original directors. He passed away about three years ago and his funeral was filled with actors who were so grateful to have worked with him. Because he later directed '7th Heaven,' one of those actors was Catherine Hicks, who I worked with on 'Ryan's Hope.' Catherine and I spoke that day and recalled old times. It's all a circle. Harry and his wife Patty, the love of his life, were very good to me. I still am blessed to see Patty for lunch from time to time and she's a dame's dame--smart, beautiful, sassy. Harry had originally been an editor at the beginning of his career so that, as a director, he was very precise and knew exactly what he needed in every shot. And Reza Badiyi was fabulous! (laughs) He would scream at me! He would scream at me from across the set and he would get so frustrated with me because, again, he was an artist and a perfectionist and he had a temper! And I also--I'm not saying that I also have a temper--but I also wasn't going to be screamed at! (laughs) So a couple of times he and I had a few conversations on the side! (laughs) But I loved him, I loved his wife. When they gave him a tribute at UCLA, I was there and I spoke about him. He was just a lovely, lovely human being."
Ana Alicia's memories of her castmates on "Falcon Crest" also remain vivid to this day. Whether they were the leading stars of the show, or supporting or recurring characters who are not as often mentioned in discussions concerning the series, she treasures the time she spent with her on-screen colleagues. She remembers her on-screen nemesis Jane Wyman, who played the matriarch Angela Channing, as someone who "was such an utter example of what professional actors ideally, at that time in television, should be. She was so disciplined and she was there at 3:00 in the morning, she was one of the first people there, you know. She always knew her lines, never did not know her lines and did not have patience for people who did not know their lines. And she came prepared, every single day. And she was fair. She was tough, so nobody would cross her, but she was fair. You know, she kept her distance from people at times, because she had to. Yes, she was a little bit removed, but she had to be in order for her to conserve her energy and have a little bit of down time. She was an elderly woman with more energy than any of us and when she started the show, how old was she? Was she 70? All right, she wasn't that elderly but we all looked at her as someone we needed to take care of a little bit because she was the oldest and she carried the show, so much of it. But it was a blessing to have been on a show with her, especially at that time of the business. I'm not sure all of the lead actors at that time would have been as fair and as kind as she was. It's interesting, you know, when I was on-screen with her I never thought of her as 'Jane Wyman.' So when you say to me 'When you were in scenes together...' I'm starting to think 'That's right, we WERE in scenes together' because when I was on-screen with her I always thought of it as 'I was in scenes with Angela.' (laughs)"
During the second season of "Falcon Crest," Melissa Agretti embarked on a passionate, yet duplicitous, affair with Richard Channing (David Selby), who arrived in the Tuscany Valley with an air of mystery and intrigue as the illegitimate son of Angela Channing's late ex-husband Douglas (Stephen Elliott). Melissa's relationship with Richard through the years would remain adversarial at times. In real life, Ana Alicia reverently and affectionately remembers David Selby as "an animal! (laugh) In his craft, you know what I mean?, he is an ANIMAL about his art! Which I loved! I mean, every day he fought for his art, and whether you liked it or didn't you RESPECTED him tremendously. And he was so much fun to work with because I got to be crazy with him when I did scenes with him. And nobody bossed me when I was with David, you know what I mean? It was so much fun and I had chemistry with David in the role and so it was really fun"
Throughout the run of "Falcon Crest," and depending on the circumstances," Melissa enjoyed either a contentious, or amenable, interaction with members of the Gioberti family, which included Chase Gioberti (Robert Foxworth), his wife Maggie (Susan Sullivan), and their children Cole (William R. Moses) and Vickie (Jamie Rose). In real life, Ana Alicia's relationship with the actors who portrayed the Giobertis has been consistently close and characterized by genuine affection and sincere respect. She considers Susan Sullivan "again, such a professional, such an actress. You could see her stage history, you could see the calibre of work that she comes from and that she continues to do even now on the show that's she's on, 'Castle.' She's someone I greatly admire and greatly respect and someone I also call my friend. I mean, I call David my friend, too, I've been very lucky." Similarly, she remembers Robert Foxworth as "a serious actor, someone who cared deeply about his craft, very easy to work with as an actor and also as a director. He directed a lot of the episodes. I enjoyed him directing, I just looked up to him and I still do. He's a very serious individual, very serious about his causes, and again, someone who is a dear friend."
From the moment Melissa arrived on the scene in Season One, she had a strained relationship with Lance Cumson (Lorenzo Lamas), Angela Channing's grandson who she was bequeathed to marry in an arranged marriage. Throughout the run of "Falcon Crest," the love/hate relationship between Lance and Melissa fueled many a storyline on the show. Over time, however, Lance and Melissa developed their own sense of caring and affection for one another that was separate from the marriage that was arranged by their families. They still fought one another, but what ultimately underscored their relationship was the fact that Lance and Melissa understood each other completely. They never had to explain things to one another, they just instinctively operated on the same wavelength. Melissa may have been more in love with the sanctimonious Cole Gioberti, but she ultimately had more in common with Lance. Ana Alicia's friendship with Lorenzo Lamas continues to this day and her immense respect and affection for him is evident as she describes him: "Lorenzo is family to me in so many ways. You have to understand that we were children together on that show. When you have to play scenes and expose yourselves in ways sexually and emotionally--and yet we never went in that direction--it was like being married to Lorenzo! (laughs) I feel like Lorenzo's my ex-husband. And I love him dearly and genuinely, and I would protect him or be there for him in any way if I could. He was super wonderful to me and still is to this day. He's so supportive of me as I am of him and always will be. We love each other very much. We're very different people, and we would take care of each other, if it ever came to that situation, you know, I would take care of him and he would take care of me. I also think Lorenzo's work on the show was really good and I think he was extremely charismatic as well. And I think the chemistry with the two of us was really great."
Even though Melissa never actually had a direct storyline with Chao-Li, Angela Channing's majordomo and right-hand man, both Melissa and Chao-Li often encountered one another through the years on "Falcon Crest." Chao-Li was often present during many of the confrontations Melissa had with Angela, and stood in as a virtual Greek Chorus as he expressed quiet disapproval over how Lance and Melissa were conducting themselves throughout their first marriage. Ana Alicia remembers actor Chao-Li Chi as "the loveliest man! The loveliest, gentlest man. He had such class as an actor and an individual and he had such power in that role too! His character knew EVERYTHING that was going on on that show! I loved working with him. He was a very, very dear human being." She recalls that he was so highly regarded among the principal cast of "Falcon Crest" that they were all dismayed when they learned how the new producers of the show, during the eighth season, neglected to invite him to the lavish party celebrating the 200th episode of the series, "I do remember that incident and we were all very, very upset when we learned about it because he was such an important member of our cast, and he should not have been treated that way. It was a real privilege to have known him and worked with him all of those years."
When Melissa married Lance at the end of Season One, her complex relationship with Lance's fragile aunt Emma (Margaret Ladd) was established. During moments in Season One, Melissa expressed suspicion and concern over how Angela was hiding Emma from the outside world, in an effort to conceal the truth surrounding the death of Chase's father, and Angela's brother, Jason Gioberti (Harry Townes) in the premiere episode of the series (which Emma had been inadvertently involved in). As such, Melissa shared these concerns with Chase. In return, Emma would at times befriend Melissa while she was married to Lance. Emma helped Melissa seek medical treatment after she miscarried her second child and was suffering from the after-effects of those injuries which left her unable to bear any more children. In return, in Season Seven, Melissa would help Emma foil a pair of blackmailers who were trying to victimize her. While they were never actually friends, Melissa and Emma did appear to grow to care about one another. Ana Alicia remembers Margaret Ladd, who portrayed Emma, as "someone a little bit like Ilene Kristen from 'Ryan's Hope.' There is that special kind of otherworldly quality, not of this world, where they can tap into that place so easily and effortlessly. And Margaret did that beautifully. She was wonderful to watch when she worked and she's also married to a wonderful playwright and, again, another dedicated craftsman. You're talking about people who really did this out of love and dedication and not just for the money. Margaret stepped into that reality of Emma's life and really lived it and it was just extraordinary."
Melissa had an even more complex relationship with Lance's mother, the mentally disturbed Julia Cumson (Abby Dalton), particularly after it was revealed at the end of Season Two that Julia was the perpetrator who had murdered Melissa's father Carlo Agretti (Carlos Romero) earlier in the season. After that, Melissa pretended to be Julia's friend in Season Three in order to manipulate Julia into foolishly defending herself in court, thus ensuring a lifetime prison sentence for herself. Later, Julia returned the favor by kidnapping Melissa's son Joseph during the wedding reception for Angela and her attorney Philip Erickson (Mel Ferrer). In real life, Ana Alicia remembers Abby Dalton as "Sexy Abby! Abby is just, you know, one of those women who is so comfortable with herself as a woman. She loves her femininity and loves her sexuality and just had a lot of fun on the show. Every day she worked she made sure it was fun. And she and Jane got along really well. She would bring her daughter on the set, who was lovely too, and she and her husband just made a really nice family. I think of her as so much fun and so comfortable with herself as a woman and such a good, strong actress as well."
Melissa would at times, through the years, have direct dealings with Angela Channing's legal counsel. She occasionally brokered back door deals with Angela's cooly duplicitous attorney Philip Erickson (Mel Ferrer), an association which Melissa would later come to regret when Erickson would blackmail Melissa into selling him the Agretti harvest. In contrast, Melissa later became attracted to Angela's skillful, but morally decent, attorney Greg Reardon (Simon MacCorkindale). Despite Greg's attraction and personal interest in Melissa, he is the one who urges Melissa and Cole to reconcile in order for them to get married in Season Four. He later proves to be a genuine friend to Melissa after he encourages her to admit her complicity in hiring Joel McCarthy (Parker Stevenson) to run Angela off the road, in retaliation for reneging on her promise to leave Melissa Falcon Crest when she dies, a criminal act which Lance is falsely accused of. Greg later defends Melissa in court, helping her land a reduced sentence. Ana Alicia recalls that "I had a great deal of respect for Mel Ferrer. Again, an actor who was a consummate professional, someone who cared so much about the work and was always prepared and always ready to work hard. And Mel was just a very nice man." When asked about Simon MacCorkindale, she enthusiastically admits "I loved Simon! It was very ironic, now that you mention it, that Simon passed away the same week as the Paley Center tribute to 'Falcon Crest' (in 2010) and the same week Chao-Li passed away. It's extraordinarily ironic. Simon was a very nice man. You know, very good looking, solid actor, fun to work with. I liked him personally, you know, he and I enjoyed working with each other. He was just a fun guy."
Another "Falcon Crest" supporting cast member that Ana Alicia recalled with fondness was Shannon Tweed, Playboy Playmate of 1982, who joined the cast in the second season as Diana Hunter, the mysterious assistant to David Selby's Richard Channing. Ana Alicia recalls taking the time to get acquainted with Tweed because "You have so many guest people coming in, I just always saw how hard it must be to come in with a cast that has this kind of history. And Shannon was hard-working and professional and so nice. It's so funny because I had a birthday coming up during the time Shannon was on the show. And I never celebrate my birthdays ever. And she called me up and said 'You have to come to the Playboy Mansion for your birthday.' And you're talking to me, who is like 'Miss Prude,' raised Catholic, they used to call me 'D.H." because I was a door hugger! (laugh) I was like so Catholic and SO scared of EVERYTHING! But I just liked her so Jamie Rose said 'Oh come on! Let's just go!' So Jamie and I went and we met Shannon there and we took a tour of the whole place and I actually met her sister that night. I think she was 15 or 16 and she was visiting. And we took photographs of us together at the Mansion and I still have the photograph. It's a GREAT photograph. And then, you know, I went home! (laugh) But it was SO much fun that night! Shannon was just terrific to me. She was just terrific. If you're a good human being and you're kind to me I will ALWAYS like you. It's funny years later, at Buckley, the school I enrolled my daughter in, I'm in a kindergarten class and my daughter has just been accepted and there's a girl there with her daughter and said 'Oh my God! Aren't you Shannon's sister that I met when you were 15?' And so Shannon's sister and I had our daughters in the same school!"
Throughout seasons three, four and five on "Falcon Crest," Ana Alicia occasionally shared screentime with Laura Johnson, as the equally scheming and devious Terry Hartford. Even though Melissa and Terry were never friends on the show, particularly when Lance was having an affair with Terry while still married to Melissa in Season Three, an underlying competitiveness between their characters always ensured an intriguing tension between them whenever they encountered one another. Ana Alicia admits that, "I didn't know Laura Johnson as well as I knew Mary Kate. Laura at that time was dating Harry Hamlin and ended up marrying him for awhile. I just didn't have a real relationship with her. But we worked together well, and definitely she came prepared, and she was definitely always professional, and she did really good work on 'Falcon Crest.' But I wasn't close with her and even our story lines--unless she and I were working the same day--I really wasn't involved in her story lines at all. We didn't work together as closely as I did with Mary Kate. But I think it's true that there was a competitive tension between our characters that worked well on the show and I think it's because that Laura did have that Eye of the Tiger. I think that when we were on-screen, that it worked well for the two women because there was that interesting competition between Melissa and Terry."
A familiar and recurring character throughout the run of "Falcon Crest" was Father Bob, the Catholic priest who presided over weddings, funerals and acted as a spiritual adviser to many a character on the series. He presided over Melissa's wedding to Lance, annulled her marriages, refused to absolve her of her sins in Season Six (an act which contributes to her mental breakdown that season) and presided over her funeral in 1988. Even though Father Bob is rarely mentioned in general discussions of the series, his continual presence on "Falcon Crest" brought an interesting subtext to the series, and helped the show stand out from its more secular companions such as "Dallas," "Knots Landing," and "Dynasty," where the religious or spiritual lives of those characters were rarely acknowledged, much less examined. The role of Father Bob was played by Bob Curtis, a real-life Paulist priest who, as it turned out, also played a significant role in the lives of the "Falcon Crest" cast members. Ana Alicia recalls how "when I got cast as Melissa, before I took the contract, I actually spoke to a priest. And I said, 'You know, I don't know if I really want to play such a bad person! If I do it really well, she's gonna be such a bad example for people!' And he said, 'Listen, theatre started in the church. The better you play evil the better good looks.' (laughs) So he was actually the priest on the show, Father Bob Curtis, who I also loved and who baptised my son. He has passed away since then, but he was fabulous. He was a real priest! He forgave me and he was wonderful!" When asked whether Father Curtis forgave her as the character Melissa, or as Ana Alicia, the real-life individual, she responds with gales of laughter, "I think on every level! Jane would have Christmas mass at this very private little chapel. I think it was at Marymount, this little Catholic high school here on Sunset Boulevard in Brentwood, and every Christmas she would have a little private mass at the chapel and every year she invited me and Father Curtis would say the mass. It was very lovely because she and I shared Catholicism. She and I also shared a podiatrist! (laughs)"
Season Five of "Falcon Crest" brought some intriguing additions to the show, starting with Ken Olin as Father Christopher, a kind-hearted priest who turns out to be Angela's grandson--Julia's illegitimate child and Lance's half-brother--who she had kept hidden from the rest of the family for decades. As Melissa's marriage to Cole starts falling apart, she seeks spiritual guidance and friendship from Father Christopher, and a strong attraction develops between their characters. However, this attraction remains unresolved as Father Christopher is written out of the series by the middle of the season. Ana Alicia recalls with fondness "Oh my God, I loved working with Ken! And I loved his wife, Patricia Wettig! They are both really talented people and they later did wonderful work together on that TV series, 'thirtysomething.' You know, 'Falcon Crest' just didn't allow him to do the kind of stuff that he ended up doing and it wasn't because of the writers and it wasn't because of Ken. It was just the role--he came in for a purpose, did a great job with that part, and then had to be written out. But that storyline was so much fun and he was lovely to work with."
Also joining the cast during Season Five was Apollonia Kotero, who had just come from starring opposite Prince in the hit feature film "Purple Rain" (1984) as aspiring pop singer Apollonia, who Lance was romancing and was helping to promote her music career. Apollonia was brought on the show to help attract a more youthful audience as "Falcon Crest" began competing for ratings against the hip "Miami Vice" on NBC. It was a controversial addition, that some felt did not fit with the format of the show, but Ana Alicia makes it clear that she "liked Apollonia very much. She was a very nice person and I felt for her. You know, she was supposed to live up to certain things because of that movie with Prince. And there was a lot of pressure to come in and do that for the show and I think it was a very hard experience at the time for her. I liked her, you know, and let me be clear, when I say I liked people, it doesn't mean that you're not threatened by them in some way. But you just go beyond that, you know what I mean? It's like when all these beautiful women would come on the set I would go 'Wow!' and then you get past that and then you do what professionals do--you reach out to them and try to make them feel welcome. When Apollonia came on, I reached out to her and she was trying to do the best that she could under a lot of pressure and I liked her and I bumped into her recently. Two years ago a friend of mine was running for Congress and she was there at the fundraiser and I sat with her at the table and it was really fun to be with her. I think she has her own production company now and she just seems like, again, a really generous person."
Concurrent to the arrival of Ken Olin and Apollonia Kotero during Season Five was the introduction of Morgan Fairchild as high-powered attorney Jordan Roberts, an incest survivor who suffers from mental instability and a split personality disorder. Simon MacCorkindale's sympathetic Greg Reardon attempts to help Jordan overcome her demons as the two fall in love with each other. Melissa was never directly involved with Jordan's storyline, but Ana Alicia nevertheless enjoyed working with Morgan Fairchild on the series, "Boy, Morgan is so smart! You know, I don't think people realize how smart Morgan is because she's also extraordinarily beautiful in that unique kind of--I don't want to say 'All-American way'--but she had that look, you know, that look that represents the 1980s. And she takes really good care of herself and, again, she's a professional, she comes in, knows her lines, she does her work, and she does whatever needs to be done. So I like her very much, I bumped into her about a year and a half ago and she is just professional and, again, generous with me, always generous with me."
Later in Seasons Six and Seven, Melissa developed a friendship and romance with motorcycle-riding rebel Dan Fixx (Brett Cullen), a character whose mother Angela had hit with her car decades before and who Angela has been secretly taking care of for decades. Dan eventually proves to be a good-hearted, strong-willed individual willing to fight to protect the people he cares about. Ana Alicia remembers Brett Cullen as "an ambitious actor who cared about his craft, cared about this business. He saw the possibilities of what he was doing and yet he was so collaborative, he was easy to work with for all of us. You know, he and Billy got to be friendly and he became friends with Lorenzo as well. He was just, again, a solid guy, a solid actor and a terrific person." Season Seven saw the addition of future "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" star Mariska Hargitay as Carly Fixx, Dan's equally rebellious, mischievous little sister, who was befriended by Angela and who continually fought with Melissa. One of the most memorable scenes between Melissa and Carly was the fight between them that landed them in a pool at Richard and Maggie's aborted wedding that season. Despite the animosity between their characters on-screen, off-screen Ana Alicia warmly describes how Hargitay was "adorable when she came on the show. She was still relatively new to the business and excited and so happy and grateful to be on the show. She was so thrilled to be working with us, and we were thrilled to be working with her, and it was really lovely to have her. She was just a very, very sweet girl, and I remember going to her house a couple of times and standing at the bar in her kitchen and talking about our dreams, you know? And it was really wonderfully fun to have her on the set for everybody. She was good, she was solid, she was beautiful. I really liked her. And it's funny I bumped into her years later when I think she was pregnant with her first child. I bumped into her with my husband, who was doing something at the Emmys--was it an pre-Emmy party?--and I went with him because he had produced some shows that were nominated. I was really shy going up and speaking with her because it had been years, YEARS, since we'd seen each other. So I just very carefully said Hello to her, and her husband was there with her, and she was so nice when she saw me and told him some very nice things about me. And I was just thrilled for her--for her show and her pregnancy and her marriage. To see it all come true for her, I was very, very happy for her."
One of the fringe benefits for Ana Alicia of being on "Falcon Crest" was the opportunity for her to work alongside major stars from the classic era of Hollywood and movie making. She recalls with a sense of awe how, "They were all just wonderful. I wanted to peek and watch them work all the time. They were legends!" Of all the classic Hollywood-era actors who were guest-stars on the show, Ana Alicia readily recalls that "Rod Taylor, who played my uncle on the show, became a friend of mine. I still have a beautiful Native-American jade crucifix that he gave me from Arizona. He was the one legend who was on the show who became a friend of mine. That would be the closest relationship that I had, but I really was just in awe of all of them. You know, what can you say about legends? It was just extraordinary."
When asked which seasons or storylines from "Falcon Crest" rank among her favorites, Ana Alicia mentions the Season Six scenario where Melissa goes crazy after losing custody of her son Joseph, becomes violent and dangerous, kidnaps Chase and Maggie's baby, and drives her stolen car, with the baby and an unconscious Dan Fixx inside, into San Francisco Bay in that season's cliffhanger episode. That season also featured one of her favorite scenes from the entire series, "Do you remember the scene where I was praying out loud 'Our Father' in the corner of the room and I was saying it so quickly, it was like I was possessed? It's the scene where I'm going crazy while praying aloud and I'm cutting things with scissors. I decided to play the scene while saying 'Our Father' and I was saying it so fast it was like I was possessed, (says it quickly) 'Our Father, Who art in Heaven, Hallowed be thy name,' etc, etc. THAT was the most outrageous scene for me on the series! Because I got so into the experience and when I saw that scene I thought 'THAT'S, THAT'S where the work should be! You know, where you just get TOTALLY tripped out with the experience that you're having!" She also enjoyed the subplot that season where Melissa became a racy nightclub singer dubbed "Veronique, the Slumming Socialite." "Oh my God, that was so fun when Melissa became a singer! I loved, loved that stuff! I loved the singing in that story line! I worked with the nicest music producer who did my piano playing for those numbers. (laugh) It was great, it was so great."
After almost seven successful seasons with the show, both Ana Alicia and fans of "Falcon Crest" were taken aback when new producers took over the series at the start of Season Eight and decided to kill off Melissa. In her place, the new personnel decided to introduce a family of Hispanic laborers into the cast, headed by Kristian Alfonso as Pilar Ortega. As I've blogged about before, I sincerely believe that these changes spelled the beginning of the end of "Falcon Crest." In recounting the circumstances involving Melissa's elimination from the series, Ana Alicia recalls how "It was very weird. At first, I was really excited to meet the new producer. And so he called me into the office and we had a meeting and he proceeded to tell me how much he liked my character, and all the ideas that they had for the show, all of this stuff. And so I walked out thinking 'You know, wow. This is great. This guy is really going to be supportive of the character and he understands the show and everything.' And it must've been probably a week later that I get a call from my agent. They said, 'We just got a call and they are going to be writing you out. And they are going to buy you out for the rest of your contract.' And I just was really shocked. But, again, I wasn't panicked for some reason. I just kind of went along with it. But then when they brought in Kristian Alfonso, it was odd because I wanted to be welcoming to her, and I really tried to be welcoming to her, but it's different when it's your show and you're welcoming a guest star than when you're welcoming the new star. So there was a little bit of an awkwardness. We were always really nice to each other. It certainly wasn't her fault and it certainly wasn't my fault, you know? We made the best of it and we actually were friendly. Kristian is a good person. I bumped into her years later and she was super, super nice to me. But it couldn't help but be a little awkward. It was also awkward because I would be given little cakes from the cast and little gifts from people and the crew was really, you know, unhappy and so I let it go. However, I wish the new producer had been straight-forward with me from the beginning, and called to tell me what they were doing, rather than sitting me down and telling me one thing, and then going through my agent to deliver the news."
During this transitional time in her life, Ana Alicia refocused her energies in a positive manner when she landed a starring role in the independently-made feature film "Romero" (1989) starring Raul Julia. A biopic of the life of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who organized protests against the military regime in El Salvador, "Romero" offered her a straight dramatic role as a member of the elite upper class whose life is thrown into turmoil when her husband, the minister of Agriculture, is kidnapped and killed. Ana Alicia recalls the filming of "Romero" in Mexico as, personally and professionally, one of the happiest and most fulfilling experiences from her acting career. "I was really excited when I was cast and I flew to Mexico and I met Raul and he was, oh my God, he was just magic. He was a giant of a man, with that smile and that wonderful accent of his and his love of the craft, and his love for film and his love of the story of Romero. He was so passionate about the story. And we had such wonderful times, he would invite us to dinner, at this little hacienda house that they would rent for him there in Cuernavaca and they would have home cooked meals, the most delicious food I ever tasted in my whole life, aroz con pollo. We would sit around the dining room table and we would tell stories and we would all laugh and that's when I also met Tony Plana and his wife Ada Maris. We would walk through the streets of Cuernavaca--Tony, Raul, and Ada and I--and just have just a wonderful time. The director was an Australian, a nice guy, a fun guy and that wonderful actor Richard Jordan was also in this film and he would invite me over to have some papaya that he would have in the morning. It was such a laid-back shoot because you're in Mexico and it's such an extraordinary culture. And, of course, Mexico is my heart. There were little villages outside of Cuernavaca and this young girl who would clean our rooms would take me to visit her Mom and Dad who lived out there in these little dirt shacks. And we would make homemade tortillas on these little handmade grills and we spent all day with people who didn't have anything but somehow I always felt I knew them deeply. 'Romero' was a rewarding project to be involved with and it was an extraordinary experience and just watching Raul work, just doing the scenes with him, it was just inspiring."
Validation concerning the decision by the new producers of "Falcon Crest" to eliminate the Melissa character came several months later in early 1989, after ratings fell drastically for the Eighth season during Ana Alicia's absence. CBS responded to angry letters from fans protesting the decision to kill off Melissa by ordering the new producers of "Falcon Crest" to bring her back to the series. Rather than resurrecting Melissa from the dead, the new producers decided to bring Ana Alicia back as a new character, a Melissa look-alike named Samantha Ross. She recalls how, "It was kind of exciting when the fans got upset and then they brought me back. I always appreciated how the fans cared enough that they did that. But at that point the character they created to bring me back was kind of tame and you could feel that the show began to fall apart. This was because of the amount of people they kept adding to the show and you couldn't even follow the show anymore. It just didn't make any sense. My general feeling during the later years of the show, when we would have these table readings of the scripts, it just always felt to me that so many characters were being introduced that nobody was going to care about anybody. That was my concern. I just felt that the people that the audience cared about were no longer going to be the heart and soul of the show. I'm not talking about me, I'm talking about the other core cast members, because the show was now about all these new people that were coming in. They brought in some good actors but it was just too much going on all the time. So I did those shows, six weeks or whatever was the contract, and then I didn't really want to fight for it anymore to return for another season because it wasn't that experience that we had before where everybody is enjoying themselves. People were getting disillusioned about the show. It wasn't like they gave me a choice that I could return for another season, either, because this new producer was not a man who saw anything positive in what I brought to the show. He felt like he had been caught with his hands tied. He was really angry when they brought me back. I think he was frustrated because it was his decision to take me off, and I think that bringing me back proved that the fans didn't like his decision. What's interesting is that I bumped into him many years later, maybe 6 months ago or 8 months ago, at a play reading. And, instinctively, I went up and gave him a hug because he had been part of that part of my life. Life just is what it is, everybody moves on, and things happen for a reason. If that hadn't happened, I wouldn't have had my extraordinary children. Things happen in life and we can't be victims of things and nobody's trying to do things to you. These are decisions that people make because they believe that they're the best decisions that they can make at that moment."
After Ana Alicia's association with "Falcon Crest" ended for good, she made guest appearances on TV shows such as "Life Goes On," "Murder She Wrote," and reunited with Lorenzo Lamas on his action series "Renegade." Her best role after "Falcon Crest" was in the 1990 TV movie "Miracle Landing," a fact-based disaster drama concerning the efforts of the flight crew on Aloha Airlines Flight 243 on April 28, 1988 to safely land the aircraft after it had experienced decompression due to having a portion of its fuselage being torn away after take-off. She played Michelle Honda, the real-life flight attendant who worked valiantly to save the lives of passengers and prepare them for an emergency landing. For Ana Alicia, "Miracle Landing" proved to be challenging both personally and professionally, "The director I had worked with on 'Coward of the County,' Dick Lowry, offered me the role. And it was a fabulous shoot, it was so challenging and interesting to do that role. Connie Sellecca and Wayne Rogers were a dream to work with. I got to do all my stunts and that was so much fun. I actually ended up in the emergency room! What happened was that I got beat up a lot doing the stunts on that film because, if you see the show, you see me crawling up and down the aisle and hitting myself against everything as the wind is pushing me. So I had to push myself and hit everything, you know. But they were using that white smoke and I was working in it every day and my lungs developed a real problem. So I ended up getting Epstein Barr from that and I actually couldn't work for a short while. I was lucky, I actually got out of it really fast because I had a good nutritionist. But for three months I literally could not get of bed. People were telling me that I should take Workmans Comp but I didn't want to. That was my second important education on nutrition. Bill Duke already educated me about the importance of nutrition before that, but I really didn't understand what health and nutrition was about until that incident because I had to fight back to get my life back again."
Aside from these roles, however, Ana Alicia started to focus more on her personal, rather than professional, life. She married TV producer Gary Benz in 1994 and has spent most of the last 20 years maintaining a low profile while raising her two children, a daughter and a son. As she explains, "You know, when I left 'Falcon Crest,' this is the way I felt: I felt I've lived a full life, having loved in my life, having children, having relationships. I've lived such a full life on-screen and I haven't hardly had any life off-screen. And I just felt that I was gonna do it and I was gonna do it then. I had never, EVER thought about children in my whole life, and when I left 'Falcon Crest,' I started thinking about children, probably because my best friend got pregnant. And so those hormones were just crazy! Just crazy! And so I started--instead of booking jobs--this is really bad, I started booking situations where I thought, "Oh, maybe I'll meet the father of my child!" (laughs) And I would do things that I would NEVER do like I would go to parties where I didn't really know people that well and weddings where I didn't really know people! And I would take my best friend with me and we were out to find the father of my child! (laughs) So I wasn't concentrating on auditioning. A couple of things came my way, but I wasn't focused on acting. The one thing that came my way was a chance to go to Paris where this really good-looking, nice producer was producing this show that I would be hosting. It was a special called 'The World's Greatest Stunts' that aired on FOX. So I found an extraordinary father for my children, and he found an extraordinary mother for his children! Neither one of us was looking initially for a marriage, we were looking to be extraordinary parents!"
|Ana Alicia guest-stars as a doctor in a 1994 episode of Lorenzo Lamas' series "Renegade"|
Once she had her family, however, Ana Alicia rarely looked back and did not try to balance an acting career with her family life. She completely committed herself to being a full-time mother. "When my daughter was 12 months old and my son wasn't even born, I got a pilot for a series and I went to New Mexico to shoot it. But I just wasn't that motivated to work and my agent said to me one day 'You're never gonna work again, are you?' Another time something came up is when Lorenzo offered me a role on the series he was directing, 'Renegade,' when the kids were like 3 and 1 years old. So I took it just to go have fun with Lorenzo, but I realized that I didn't want to raise my kids that way because it would have meant that I would have to leave them if I ever had to work and all of that stuff. So I decided, 'Unless something tiny comes along, where I can go in and work for like a day every so often, I don't want to do it.' When my daughter was 9 years old, and my youngest son was 6 years old, I started getting the acting bug a little bit again. I got into an acting class and I decided I was going to get back to work if it was something small. They sent me out for an audition and, sure enough, I'm all dressed to the nines and I was on my way to the interview and as I'm getting out of the car, I get a phone call from my daughter's school. They said, 'There's been a little bit of an accident and not to worry, she's fine. She got hit on the playground, and she cried for like a minute, but she's fine.' Well, my daughter NEVER cries about anything. So I didn't go to the audition. I went immediately to the school and she was sitting there with her leg extended. And she was shaking, like a freezing cold shaking, and I picked her up and I took her to the doctor and she had broken her tibia. It had snapped. And she was so brave and so much in shock that nobody knew she had been that injured because she was so quiet! I knew because I knew my daughter. I volunteered in the classroom as one of the math assistants because she couldn't move around or do things by herself for, like, six weeks. The cast went all the way up to her hip. So I accompanied her to school while she was recuperating and I just decided at that point in time that the universe was telling me 'They still need you, they still need you.' Anyway, they both needed me to be around and so I made the decision to do that. And you know what? I never regretted it and I never missed it again once I stepped back in. Now that I've raised my children and they're launched and I look at them and I look at who they are, for myself, I'm so grateful that I took those 22 years to do that."
Now that her younger child, her son, is preparing to leave for college, Ana Alicia has been busy attending acting classes and is planning to resume her acting career. In so doing, she has reconnected with the self-confidence, dedication and commitment to her craft that characterized her personality throughout her career. "In the beginning, I never really doubted that I would succeed as an actress. I acknowledge that it's just an extraordinary comment to make about yourself because how could I be confident like that? I was from El Paso, I didn't know anybody, I didn't have anything. It wasn't like I was exceptionally talented or beautiful. But there was a certain sense, a certainty, in me that if I worked hard enough, I would be able to work as an actress. But the interesting thing is, now that I'm thinking of going back to work, and everybody thinks I'm crazy to try and go back into the business, but that certainty is coming back into me. And it's a CRAZY certainty, but I think it's when you've worked your whole life--I've been working since I was 11 years old when I was a little girl--you're used to working hard and you're used to succeeding on your own."
In October 2010, Ana Alicia reunited with cast and crew members of "Falcon Crest" when she participated in a panel discussion and tribute to the show hosted by TV Guide senior editor William Keck at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. After years away from the business and the spotlight, she was touched by the degree of enthusiasm and love for the series that she experienced from fans who attended that night. It appears to have helped her put into context the extent of her career accomplishments, "You know, I had just come from seeing my mother in Texas. My mother had just had a stroke and so I was involved in helping to take care of her day-in and day-out for like three weeks. I wasn't gonna come that night, and all of a sudden I decided just to come at the last minute. To be there that night and have my memories of 'Falcon Crest' so validated and to see the love that we all had for each other and the respect of that time in my life, it was just very special to experience that."
Ana Alicia remains grateful for the experience and opportunity to have worked on "Falcon Crest," "Ryan's Hope," "Halloween II," and "Romero," and for the faith that Monique James and Eleanor Kilgallen had when they placed her under contract at Universal 35 years ago. The experience and confidence that she developed during her time as a contract player with Universal not only helped her develop the skills and survival instincts to forge a successful career for herself after leaving the studio, it also helped contribute to her strong self-awareness and sense of priorities about what really matters to her, elements which later helped to influence her decision to leave acting and focus on a family life. While the prospect of resuming an acting career, after being away from it for almost 20 years, would be daunting for anyone, Ana Alicia appears to have the proper perspective that should go a long way towards helping her achieve her goal, "The reason why I feel so good right now in my life is that I'm getting a handle on the craft by taking this wonderful acting class. And when you have a craft, you can work and you can work in ways that will make you happy. It's not about being a star, it's about playing roles where you can step into parallel lives and examine the characters you are playing and allowing people to think and feel and dream things that they otherwise never would from you stepping into those shoes. It's pretty extraordinary. This is a pretty exciting time for me as an actress."