What an exhilarating time to be alive! Rapid changes, rapid growth and transformation seemed the order of the day. This kind of acceleration is not always comfortable or easy, but the way I see it, there is nothing more to do than to embrace it and let it move us forward. The Nineties were filled with challenges that tested my strength and all I had learned up until then. I had difficult health challenges, now healed through Grace and alternative medicine and determination. I journeyed through another divorce during which time I lost my home and most of my finances. My father died from lung cancer in 1992 and my mother died in the summer of 1995.
I formed a film production company called Windermere Productions in partnership with an established female producer, and a good friend. Although none of our films were made, I had three years of learning that the “other” side of the camera is no less challenging. I wrote and produced a meditation tape called The Spirit of Peace which I presented “live” in the General Assembly at the United Nations in December of 1990. I am very proud of this particular project. I continued my ongoing work with The United Nations Environment Programme, which took me to Africa, The Arctic, and allowed me to meet and “bond” with such fine environmentalists as Dr. David Suzuki and his wife, Tara. My global family of concerned and dedicated humanists expanded significantly in the Nineties.
I recorded a series of Meditation tapes for A Course In Miracles called the Search for Serenity. This is another project that gives me great satisfaction. I spent a happy season on Picket Fences as the Mayor of Rome, Wisconsin. I won an Emmy for this role in 1995.
I had a re-entry into the wonderful and chaotic world of Rock and Roll in a three year relationship with Dave Mason, formerly of Traffic. We are old friends from the Seventies. In these years with him, I spent at least one year traveling in and out of the Fleetwood Mac tours. David had joined them in 1995.
In November 1997, my son Patrick O’Neal and Rebecca De Mornay had their first child, a little girl. I have welcomed this soul with all my heart. She gives me the opportunity to step into another role of loving. I’m very happy with my life. I’m used to challenge. I’m getting to experience much more about joy, happiness, sharing and loving in my personal life. And so the adventure continues.
In April of 1993, my agent sent me a scene for an audition for a new on-air series called Picket Fences. I read the scene. It was well written with a delightful character of a woman Mayor. I was excited. You really celebrate good writing when you get it. Good actors become excellent at turning “sow’s ears into silk purses” with their material. Actors “sense” rhythms and phrases that are “in flow” with the character. Actors and writers should be good partners.
I auditioned for Michael Pressman , who was one of the producers, and a director on the show. It went well. Auditioning is a very sensitive thing. You can have great talent, work hard on an audition, drive to the audition literally on fire, go into the audition, and the fire went out mysteriously somewhere between waiting to go in, and the actual audition. Other times, all moments converge perfectly and you know you were great, and still you might not be what they are looking for. As I was driving home from the reading for Picket Fences, I knew I had given one of those auditions where I was great, and I knew they felt the same. That is certainly what you hope for. I felt the excitement of having done my best. I find I am usually more concerned about my evaluation of how I did in an audition, than if I actually got the job. I know I can always work to improve what I do; I know I can’t control what they do.
Later that evening, my agent called and told me they were “blown away” by my work. However… they did not feel I was well-known enough. Even though I was wonderful, they wanted to explore other female talent that would have bigger names. They would “let me know”. I felt like I had been punched. Once again, it was out of my control. What could I do about my name? Nothing.
Four weeks later, out of the blue, I was called to come in and audition once again. They had not found their bigger “name”. This audition was not quite as magical. I felt it was good, but not as good as the time before. They again said, they would be continuing their search for a name. This was a painful process. I really wanted to play Mayor Harris. I knew I could “soar” in this role.
On August fifth, my agent called and asked if I was sitting down. “You start work on Picket Fences in three weeks. They love you. You were the best. Everyone else they auditioned wanted too much money and weren’t as talented in the role as you”. I was stunned. I didn’t say much but, “thank you”. This had come at a time when I was financially strained and was considering living with my mother because I might not be able to pay my rent. I began working on Picket Fences. I sunk my creative spirit into this colorful character with all my passion and love of acting. “She” inspired me because she was not one dimensional. She was strong but fragile, passionate, opinionated, sexual, beautiful and not at all afraid to stomp on toes to get her way. In other words, Rachel Harris was great fun to play.
I fell in love with everyone and everything about this show. How could I not? The writing, the production, the actors and the crew were extremely talented and also very nice. Every ten days a script would arrive written by David Kelley. I never read these scripts silently. I would find myself spontaneously exclaiming, “Oh, my God!” , as I would discover what my character would be up to next. He wrote and created brilliant, human and hilarious situations for all the characters in Rome, Wisconsin in practically perfect scripts. David Kelley remains one of my favorite talents in our industry. I did 22 shows on Picket Fences as Mayor Rachel Harris. On Sept 10, 1995, I won an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in a Dramatic Series.
Picket Fences on IMDB
In the summer of 1995, I lost my mother, my greatest and sweetest life friend. This threw me into a chaotic period of adjustment, both emotionally and legally. I did several movies of the week, and some episodic work throughout the following year to keep myself busy. By the fall of 1996, I was seriously examining my interest in continuing my career as an actress. I had no enthusiasm for my work. I wanted to contribute, I knew that, but it seemed as if all the life and work that had gone before was somehow “done”, and complete. I was in a limbo of unknowing of what the new direction for me might be. It would indeed be “new” as I felt very new myself. It was as if another “incarnation” was beginning fresh. I had the memory and awareness of my experiences, and the lessons learned, but no attachment to any of it. It was an unusual place, a peaceful place, and a “holding” place. I knew whatever was ” for” me would reveal itself. I felt patient.
Early in November of 1996, my agent called me and said that Aaron Spelling had personally asked for me to play a lead role in his first entrance into daytime drama. It would be called Sunset Beach. I have to say, I was delighted to be asked for by Aaron. Obviously he is a tremendously successful producer of the famous recent series of 90210, Melrose Place, Seventh Heaven and his “historical hits” which including Dynasty, Love Boat, Fantasy Island and Charlie’s Angels. We first met at The Daisy in 1967, a great nightclub on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills attended by all the stars. He’d play pool with Candy by his side and I was a wide-eyed, very young Peyton Place star with Ryan by my side. At the time, Aaron was a successful writer. We have known each other throughout the years as warm acquaintances.
He is a truly nice man who has raised two wonderful children with his lovely wife, Candy. Randy Spelling is a special young man. He is funny, delightful, talented, spiritual, and like his father he is very kind and good to other people. Tori is a consummate professional, she has the potential of becoming an even finer actress, she has talent and discipline. like her younger brother, she is gracious with everyone. Aaron Spelling has never seemed to lose his sense of wonder. Out of his childhood love for movies he has created wonderful fantasies to thoroughly entertain us and take us momentarily away from life’s day to day humdrum. I highly recommend his book Aaron Spelling, A Prime Time Life. It is inspiring.
From his efforts, and who he is as a person, Aaron has created all he has today. He deserves it. He has also incorporated into 90210 and Melrose Place some very pertinent social issues for young people. Seventh Heaven is a value-oriented family show.
When he asked for me to play Elaine, I took it seriously. However, I did not want to do daytime. I had my judgments about these shows. They seemed “unreal” to me. I had never been captured as a loyal daytime viewer. I had big doubts. To honor Aaron’s request, I went in to meet the producers and the head writer.
They would be starting in two weeks and they still didn’t have their Elaine. Elaine Stevens was originally conceived as an Earth Mother type like Patricia Neal or Collen Dewhurst. I was not that. I’m a good actress, but we all carry our own qualities into our roles. However, I am a nurturing person which did seem to fit the character. The producers felt strongly that I was right to play her. When they started describing the character in greater detail, inwardly I felt a tingle of creative juices stirring. I thought to myself, “Leigh, you are in trouble. You like this character.” I took a day to think about it, and the “tingle” did not go away. I was excited even in the face of all my considerations. I risked it, and said Yes! My life now began to have new definition by accepting this commitment. The producer of Sunset Beach, Gary Tomlin, warned me well of the demand and the speed of the work. It didn’t dissuade me. I saw it as a challenge. Well, when I began shooting, I realized fully how right he was.
The first month I was on the show I was quite upset. I thought I was terrible. I simply was not used to three cameras, almost no rehearsal and only one, or possibly two, takes. I was a “process” oriented actress who needed rehearsal and at least some time to prepare. In nighttime television, you learn to speed up your “process” of preparation and readiness. In daytime, you work comparatively at the speed of light, often with 20 to 30 pages of dialogue a day. You might take a week to shoot that much dialogue in a nighttime series. I was convinced I had seriously damaged my career. I felt I couldn’t be good without my comfort zone of “more time”. Given that I was committed to Sunset Beach , I knew I had better find a way. I did. I decided to be good in less time, as quickly as possible. I decided to trust myself. Somewhere in me, after thirty years of working and wonderful training, was the ability to risk, and “go for it” with no “safety net” and still arrive at the emotional moments.
I accepted there would be days when I simply would not meet my expectations and, so, you go on to the next day’s work. You can do that in daytime. You can always go on to the next day. Just do your best. Sunset Beach is taught me to let go, to trust, to accept and to go on. These are the kind of things I like to be learning in any acting assignment.
I have to say my respect for actors on daytime dramas is very high. They work hard. They deserve the loving and loyal fans they have. They make their characters very real and accessible. Accessibility is the key to daytime. The actors/characters are in your home every day with their daily life challenges. They become familiar friends to the audience. Sunset Beach was for me a very productive and fulfilling experience.
Sunset Beach on IMDB
In September of 1996, I was in Aspen attending the Aspen Film Festival. My agent called me and mentioned there was a new series on the air called The Sentinel on UPN. They were making me an offer for a guest appearance, but I would have to fly immediately home, pack and fly to Vancouver to begin shooting the very next day.
I always ask to see a script before I decide to take a job. In this case, there was no time. I asked for what is called the “breakdown” description of the character. He read it to me, I laughed and said. “I’ll do it”. The character’s name was Naomi Sandberg. She was straight out of the Sixties, full of life, love, vitality , a free spirit who adores her son and, as free as she thinks she is, she is at rock bottom a “Mom”. Garret Maggart and Richard Burgi are the stars, and Garret would play my son and Richard would be a “flirtation”.
This was amongst the happiest shooting experiences I’ve had since I Love You, Alice B. Toklas. I fell in love with Vancouver, with Garrett and all the cast and crew. Richard Burgi and Garrett are so funny together on and off camera. There is an energy from them that extends and completely lightens the work environment of a set. Everyone in the crew stepped forward to make Naomi at her best. They were incredible in their caring and support. We had to move fast and we did. When the preparation was done, I spread my wings and I let Naomi “fly”. She is a part of me; she’s a part of my spirit and my joy.
Today I’m having so much fun watching Richard Burgi on Desperate Housewives.
The Sentinel on IMDB