NBC Soap became 'Days of Our Deaths'
Even the show's matriarch was 'killed.'
When the venerable "Days of Our Lives" launched a serial-killer story line that slaughtered nearly a third of the characters over the past year, the cast panicked.
For the first time, they were left out of story line developments of the show, which airs at 1 p.m. weekdays on NBC. They only knew what was happening when scripts were delivered. For months, they feared they'd be called into executive producer Ken Corday's office and told their character was the next to go, and that their services were no longer needed.
"It got really tense around the set," says actress Alison Sweeney, known as the distraught Sami Brady. "It got to the point where every Internet rumor you took to heart, and you wondered if you'd have a job next week."
Identity of killer
Even more shocking was the identity of the killer, which was revealed earlier this year: longtime "Days" heroine Marlena Evans (Deidre Hall).
Hall, in an earlier interview, said she did not fear her character's bizarre change of personality. She had faith in the show's writers.
"I was very surprised to find out I was the one doing all [the murders]," Hall, a 25-year veteran of the show, said. "I thought it would be me, but I thought" there'd be another explanation, such as an evil twin doing the dirty deeds.
"I went to Ken Corday's office, and he sat me down and said, 'Honey, it's you. You're the killer.' I was surprised."
Corday neglected to tell Hall that Marlena was being used as a pawn, and that her victims only appeared to be murdered. So despite what viewers saw for months, no one died, and Marlena was not a killer.
In the story line, the victims were shown slaughtered, but, as it was revealed months later, they survived the attacks and were actually secretly taken to an isolated island and held prisoner. The show has yet to explain how these characters survived the graphicness of their "deaths," only to show up on an island alive, healthy and none the worse for wear.
The gimmick sent the show's ratings to new heights, taking the show that NBC considered axing two years ago and making it solid again. "Days" has reconnected with the coveted young-female demographic.
However, the cast -- including the actors who played the victims -- was unaware that the story line was all an elaborate ruse. Only Corday, head writer James Reilly and selected NBC executives knew the actors weren't gone for good.
At the time, Corday was something of a grim reaper around the set. He was the one who'd inform an actor when he or she was getting bumped.
"It's not comfortable around here," Corday said last year of the mood on the set. "The cast is walking on its tiptoes. They don't look for a hug when they see me coming."
Traditional farewell parties assumed a somber tone. Some actors, so upset by the sudden turn, decided to exit without a goodbye bash.
Killed show staple
The loudest outcry came when Marlena killed the show's longest-running character, matriarch Alice Horton (played by Frances Reid), a staple on the show since 1965. She was thought to be dead after being forced to choke on doughnuts.
Internet fans threatened to stop watching the show after their dear and sweet Alice appeared to meet her demise.
Weeks later, the story line revealed the characters were alive, though their onscreen loved ones still don't know it.
Actors who thought they had been fired returned. (In the meantime, actor Matthew Ashford, whose character, Jack, had died, temporarily found work on another soap -- as a serial killer.)
With everything back to order, at least backstage, there seems to be no hard feelings. "It's jovial now," says actor Bryan Dattilo, who plays Lucas.
Before "Days" goes on hiatus this Friday for NBC's coverage of the 2004 Summer Olympics, the show will build up to a cliffhanger, as Salem residents learn the whereabouts of their missing friends and launch rescue missions.