'Melrose Place' at 25: Scrapped Storylines, Partying With World Leaders and How a Wig Reveal Saved the Show

Melrose Place - Photo-Illustration - Photofest - H 2017
Photo-Illustration by Ben Park; Photofest (Stills)

In spring 1992, Fox was riding high with Beverly Hills, 90210, and after just two seasons on the air, the series about a group of high school kids was averaging more than 17 million viewers a week. With a pop culture phenomenon on their hands, network executives were eager to move into a spinoff. At first, 90210 creator Darren Star resisted the idea that a new series be set in college because that’s where 90210 was headed. Instead, Star pitched an idea that sprang from his post-college days living in a West Hollywood, California courtyard apartment complete with a pool.

Enter Jake Hanson (Grant Show), a friend of fan favorite Dylan (Luke Perry), who had an immediate attraction to Kelly (Jennie Garth). The sparks flew and after his three-episode introduction, the handsome and blue-collar Jake was spun off into his own ZIP code along with seven other twentysomethings. Melrose Place launched July 8, 1992, and, after some rocky ratings in its first season, joined 90210 and became a pop culture powerhouse.

Every week during the show’s mid-1990s heyday, between 13 million and 14 million people would tune in to see soapy storylines involving psycho doctors, murders, blackmail and sex — oh, so much sex! Fans across the country would have Melrose parties. There wasn’t a pop culture magazine cover the cast didn’t appear on. It was parodied on other series. Fox eventually moved away from Melrose Place after seven seasons but the original cast still can barely go a week without having someone mention it to them. As this show about twentysomethings nears its 25th anniversary, the cast, creators and network execs responsible share their memories of everything from Heather Locklear saving the series to the infamous bombing episode to an embarrassing encounter with a world leader and more.

Grant Show (Jake, the heartthrob): We started shooting several months after those three episodes of 90210 and I’ll never forget walking onto the soundstage and seeing they’d dug a swimming pool into the stage floor. I thought, “We’re going to be here for a while. We have to pay off that pool.”

Courtney Thorne-Smith (Allison Parker): I auditioned for an Aaron Spelling medical show called Partners. I was going back in every day for a week and it was brutal. Then I didn’t get it and was just devastated! Aaron said, “I’m gonna work with you, doll.” And the next day a stack of scripts was on my doorstep. One was Melrose Place. I called my agent about it and was told, “This is going to get buzz and you’ll get some name recognition.”

Josie Bissett (Jane Mancini, aspiring fashion designer): I’d just received an offer to play Robert De Niro’s daughter in a movie when I also heard about a role on some new Fox show. So I did the audition for Melrose Place and had to decide between starting a movie career or a TV career. The deciding factor was that Melrose was already picked up.

Thomas Calabro (Michael Mancini, a doctor initially married to Jane): I was tossing out almost all of the scripts I was seeing because they were so bad. Then, there was one that actually read well — Melrose Place — so I said I’d go in for it. They told me when I went to audition that I was 10 years too old for the part and I should forget about it.

Doug Savant (Matt Fielding, a gay social worker): My audition for Melrose Place was everything I hated about the business. There were all these young women, fluffed up and attempting to be hot. It was all about being eye candy and wasn’t at all what I wanted to be a part of. Still, I went through with it but didn’t think what I had to offer was what they were seeking. So when they wanted to make a test deal and take me to network, I was flummoxed. I was excited, too, because Matt was an exceptional character and maybe the lone openly gay character on mainstream TV at the time.

Andrew Shue (Billy Campbell, the new guy): I’d just moved to Los Angeles in February 1992, not too long after spending a year in Africa, and decided to try acting. Fox brought me in for a Spelling pilot called Gulf City after they decided they didn’t like the guys they’d already cast. I also got an audition for this show called Melrose Place but never even got a callback. Then, Gulf City was canceled and the next day I heard they fired a guy from Melrose. I got the call saying that they were auditioning new people and could I come out to Aaron Spelling’s and help with the readings. I thought I was just doing a favor. Afterward, he told me, “You got the part, kid. You start on Monday.”

Show: We’d already started working on the pilot and the actor who’d been hired to play Billy — Stephen Fanning — came to work to find Andrew in his trailer. That’s how he found out.

Savant: It wasn’t a conscientious firing.

Calabro: One of the most unifying things they did for the cast was weeks of pre-promotion before we’d even shot one minute of film. Fox was selling the shit out of it and I have to admit, that made me a little uncomfortable. There were all these junkets! At one point, they closed down Melrose Avenue for a block party.

Show: We weren’t critiqued particularly favorably but we also didn’t get bad critiques.

Shue: I thought the show was a little cute and corny at first. Every episode wrapped up with a bow, was a little preachy and was trying to say something about society and young people. It wasn’t juicy. There was no soapy element. They realized quickly the show wasn’t tracking well.

Thorne-Smith: We were just eight nice kids trying to make it and nobody cared.

Darren Star (creator): I felt boxed in by the 90210 connection and having to have those early episodes connect to it. We had to make a last ditch effort to save something I thought had so much promise.

Sandy Grushow (then-president at Fox Television Entertainment): We started to shed audience. I remember a lot of anxiety over what was starting to feel like a missed opportunity. I’ll never forget the night [shortly thereafter] when I got a call from Aaron asking what I thought of the possibility of bringing Heather Locklear on the show full-time.

Star: I was asked to come in and meet with Heather and at the time, Amanda (Alison's boss) was a fairly innocuous part with a four-episode arc. Once we started writing for her and saw how she was able to take an innocuous line and give it devious subtext, that inspired so much in terms of where the show could go.

Heather Locklear (Amanda Woodward, Alison's boss): I’d heard about the show, about them closing off Melrose Avenue for a big promotion. I watched it and thought, “Oh my God! I would love to be on that but I’m too old.” Then, when I got called to meet with Aaron, I told him I didn’t want Amanda to play dumb. I wanted her to be business-like. In the beginning, those first four episodes mostly had me just be the boss. By the second season, though, Amanda thought everyone was incompetent.

Star: Heather gave me permission to spin storylines in a more over-the-top way because of who she was and what she represented. It lit a fire under me, because it felt like there was nothing to lose here: "Let’s go bat shit crazy and have a lot of fun!"

Show: By the end of the first season, we embraced the cheesiness.

Locklear: After a year, the ratings were starting to go up and storylines were getting crazier.

GrushowThe show was on an upward trajectory again. We’d started on a high, then the bottom dropped out and we brought in new castmembers and started to aggressively serialize the storytelling.

Bissett: I remember Amy Locane (who played Sandy, an aspiring actress and Jake's ex), who was one of the original cast, leaving show because I guess it just didn’t work out. I’m not sure what happened. Vanessa Williams (who played Sandy's roommate, Rhonda, and Matt's friend) left too, and I was sad to see her go. There were changes happening and I didn’t really know why.

Daphne Zuniga (Jo Reynolds, Jake's love interest): I was brought in midway through the first season. Darren had been a roommate in college and he said he had a new character I’d be interested in even though I hadn’t done a TV show before.

Marcia Cross (Dr. Kimberly Shaw, Michael's love interest): I’d auditioned to be on just one episode. The part was for a doctor, which sounded cool. They had me back for one more. Then it was two. Then it was three. They just kept asking me to come back even though they’d had Kimberly dying. I was told, “We have an idea of how you can come back.” I’d recently lost a true love to a brain tumor so the show was a lifeline to me. It gave me a rope to hang onto.

Laura Leighton (Sydney Andrews, Jane's younger sister): I came on near the end of season one and there was no sense of how Sydney was going to fit into the context of the show. I saw her as pushing people’s buttons from the beginning. She was written as younger than me, which was part of my panic. I was a couple years older than Josie but I was playing her younger sister, so I was afraid people would find out and I’d lose the job.

Grushow: With all these changes, Melrose had become the ultimate water-cooler show. It was completely in the zeitgeist. We caused controversy when we decided to move the show to 8 p.m. Monday nights for the third season. That had historically been considered the “family hour.”

Locklear: Fox put up billboards that said “Mondays are a Bitch” with my face! I thought it was fantastic! I still have a smaller version of that poster in my house.

Star: That campaign was a brilliant move by Fox.

Show: It felt like the beginning of a wave.

Leighton: I think that was the season where we all went, “OK, this is big!” Murders, kidnapping, blackmail … it was snowballing and once you start in that direction, you have to keep finding bigger and better storylines.

Cross: I would call Darren a lot and ask, “I’m doing what?!” There was the reveal of Kimberly’s wig and her scar. She breast-fed Jo’s baby. I just thought, “Are you guys out of your minds?” None of this was what you study in acting school but I would just pretend Scorsese was directing and I was Michelle Pfeiffer.

Locklear: Kimberly pulling off the wig in front of the mirror and we saw her huge scar. It was like, “Oh my God! She’s back!”

Savant: Marcia pulling that wig off and exposing her scar was the quintessential Melrose moment. At that point, I was tangential part of the show.

Cross: I was doing Twelfth Night at the Old Globe in San Diego at the time they said Kimberly was coming back. I enjoyed doing Melrose but didn’t want to give up the play. I decided to do both at the same time. My agent even said, “Don’t do it.” I just said, “Watch me.” I remember flying up from San Diego to the set in Oxnard, going from Shakespeare to pulling off a wig to show a scar. After that twist, and seeing how people went a kooky for it, I realized, “Oh god, this is real!” I didn’t really understand what was going on for a long while until then.

Zuniga: Jo did have it tough. She lived with an abusive guy. She was kidnapped. She shot her kidnapper with a gun she found in the bottom of a boat. She found out her dead lover got her pregnant. His parents stole her baby. She came home to find Kimberly breastfeeding that baby … it was a lot!

Carol Mendelsohn (supervising producer, 1994-95; co-EP, 1995-99): We had Sydney and Jane burying Jane’s ex-boyfriend alive. Sydney kept having dreams about being in prison with Jane. That was as far out as you could truly go.

Bissett: Jane had some pretty unforgettable moments, like when she was raped and then she and Sydney dragged the guy out into the woods and buried him. And he turned out to still be alive. One of my favorite scenes was when Jane finds Sydney with her wedding dress on and they end up fighting in the pool. We did that in one take because we only had one wedding dress.

Thorne-Smith: There were times when I thought, “Oh, please don’t make me do that!” The hardest scene for me to play, and the one that still makes me cringe, was when Allison decided to confront her father at the family barbecue about being molested. Trying to walk that line was brutal.

Star: There was also The Kiss. It was a scene where Billy watches Matt kissing his best friend in the courtyard. I was adamant we had to shoot the scene because we weren’t going to censor ourselves.

Savant: Darren knew full well when he delivered the script to the network that they wouldn’t let him shoot the kiss. He kept it in knowing what would happen. It created this controversy of Is The Kiss In Or Out? We had the temerity to shoot it while the network didn’t have the temerity to allow it.

Star: In the end, I thought if they’re going to make the decision to cut it, that was going to be their decision. And they did in fact cut around it, showing Billy’s reaction to the kiss but not the kiss. Still, we kept pushing things as much as we could.

Mendelsohn: In the middle of all this, our set decorator met with an artist who thought up the idea that art could carry a subversive message through television. We thought it’d be a fun thing to do. This was a time when you couldn’t show a condom on TV, so the sheets in Peter Burns’ (Jack Wagner) bedroom looked on camera as if they had a print of condoms. When Sydney had a fight with someone and broke a painting, it was a picture of Watts Tower decorated with poppies all around it because there was a belief that the CIA sent opioids to Watts to addict the community. When Allison is pregnant and working from her couch, the pattern on the quilt was the chemical structure of the drug RU486. It was clandestine the whole time. We didn’t even tell the actors.

Show: The apartment building blowing up was maybe the biggest thing that happened.

Grushow: When we were approving storylines I remember thinking to myself, “I hope that this isn’t going too far.” As it turned out, there wasn’t a lot our audience wouldn’t go along with.

Mendelsohn: Kimberly was going to kidnap Sydney and have her fly a plane into the corridor. As we were working on that idea, somebody actually did that at the White House so we had to abandon that. It became Kimberly blowing up the courtyard. And then the Oklahoma City bombing happened and we decided not to have the explosion at the end of season three. We just had her there with her finger on the trigger and didn’t actually blow the place up until the next season.

Calabro: That was the dopiest thing, blowing up the building but none of us getting hurt. Only some recurring character that was actually further away from the blast than we were didn’t make it. And two episodes later, Marcia was back in full makeup.

Locklear: That was pretty crazy! We all were thinking, “Wait! We survived? Really?”

Leighton: When we shot the explosion, we had pyrotechnics going off all over as crewmembers off-camera threw rocks at us. I asked myself, “How are we going to come back after this?”

Show: If there was a shark, we were jumping it. And it didn’t matter.

Cross: By then, we were already pretty full on into Melrose mania.

Savant: At the time, Santa Clarita was an unusual place to shoot and we were the only ones out there. This was a hit show made on what felt like an island. We did have the Marie Callender’s near the set where we could go for a beer and shoot the shit.

Thorne-Smith: It was a warm environment on the set. Every day at 10 a.m., the craft service guy would bring out this huge bowl of tuna and soon, you’d be surrounded by 200 people with tuna breath. That bowl was huge. Whose idea was that anyway?

Calabro: I’ll never forget the day our caterer made cajun chicken. The crew had complained the previous time that it wasn’t hot enough so the next time … well, we were shooting in Oxnard with limited bathroom access. That was a funny day and it took a very long time to shoot because the crew was … busy. Thank God I didn’t have any because I had to do a bed scene with someone that day.

Zuniga: We were the only show shooting in that warehouse in the middle of nowhere so I didn’t really realize how big the show had become until we’d get flown together in the Fox jet to upfronts or to the Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas.

Leighton: It all took me by surprise. You don’t expect somebody to walk up and say, “I know it’s you because that’s your crooked tooth.” I never thought my crooked tooth was that recognizable.

Cross: There were days when I’d be walking down the street weeping over the loss of the person I’d loved and people would just come up and start gushing about the show. They were so excited they didn’t even notice I was crying. For me, it was a relief just to have that job to go back to. That’s what helped me through a difficult time in my life.

Star: Larry David got in touch to ask if the show could use a clip for an episode where Jerry is being interrogated with a lie detector test and gets busted because he’s a fan of Melrose Place. I also got this really great letter from Judge Ito, requesting Melrose videos for the jurors during the O.J. Simpson trial.

Shue: I had this crazy moment in 1994 where I got invited to a reception for the prime minister of Israel, Yitzakh Rabin. The biggest Hollywood stars were there … Streisand, Beatty and all these people. As it turned out, Rabin’s wife was only interested in meeting that guy from Melrose Place. I got called me up to take pictures with her and I could see Streisand saying, “Who is that?” As I walked off the stage, Richard Dreyfuss whispered to me, “The power of TV.”

Leighton: There was a time after the show was over that Doug (whom she eventually married) was in the hospital having ankle surgery. I was there with him in the recovery room when a nurse walked in and said to me, “Oh no, you can’t be in here!  You’re going to do something bad to him.” It was so confusing to hear that but then I realized she had actually mistaken me for Sydney. Seriously! That lasted for a long time.

Thorne-Smith: I heard a lot of people were naming babies after us. I figure there are probably lots of Billys and Allisons in their 20s out there now.

Zuniga: After Darren left the show a few years in, more new characters were being introduced. I realized we were part of a bigger system that’s doing what it needs to do. Every show gets bigger than itself. When things started to shift like that, I felt like I had less of a purpose. I wanted to do new and interesting things.

Mendelsohn: We’d had a lot of great additions. Jack Wagner, Rob Estes, Brooke Langton, Kristin Davis. It was hard to see people who’d been there from the beginning leave but shows do change. By the seventh season, though, I think everybody had slept with everybody.

Savant: It was a ton of work coming up with storylines so they had to bring in other castmembers to spice things up or spread out storylines. We had Priscilla Presley and Traci Lords. I don’t remember a specific moment when I thought we were beginning to decline but there was nothing like those first three seasons.

Shue: In my mind, the show had started to feel the splintering and all these new characters coming on. It wasn’t just the core group anymore, which was kind of sad.

Show: I didn’t want to do more than five years because back then, if you stay too long on something, it’s kind of the end of your career. And it didn’t feel like the show had momentum after the original cast left.

Calabro: I was the only one who stayed to the end. I just thought, “The opportunity for something like this is rare so why not finish it out?” And I got to have a great final scene. They hired a Playboy bunny to be with Michael. I don’t know whose idea that was but I got to look in the camera and wink. I thought, “This is going to just kill it!” I had so much fun with Michael.

Thorne-Smith: I still have people say to me, “Oh my God! My friends and I would all get together to watch Melrose together!” People still get excited about the show because it lets them remember a wonderful time in their lives.

Savant: People have great affection for that show because it takes them back to that time in their life when they felt they were the Melrose Place-ers embarking on their journey into the adult world.

Star: The show’s legacy is creating memories for people of who they were at that time in their lives.  Watching Melrose Place was a bonding experience. It brought people together.