for the defense
Robert Rorke, Soap
Opera Digest, 1992
Santa Barbara's explosive sex abuse story culminates this month as B.J. Walker stands trial for the murder of Frank Goodman, the family friend who consistently abused her over a ten-year period. The story, which was peaking even as the serial was canceled by NBC, promises to lose none of its momentum in these final weeks to make the closing days of the show memorable. While clues revealed during the murder investigation may have led viewers to think that it's an open-and-shut case pointing to B.J. (Sydney Penny) as the killer, one source at the show hints at a different, surprise ending. "It's a Thanksgiving story," says the source.
The idea to do a trial did not come from Santa Barbara's head writer, Pamela Long, instead it was the brainchild of Executive Producer Paul Rauch. "He just thought it was an incredibly exciting, dramatic conclusion," says Long. "He and I created this story together. B.J. is the ultimate victim who truly has to defend her life." Long, who also wrote the famous Bradley Raines incest trial on Guiding Light, sought the expertise of criminal attorney Sue Wise to work out the legal technicalities. "She kept laughing at us," says Long. "She said, "You should be lawyers." The most demanding thing about this trial is that Julia has to defend a girl who's an amnesiac."
The suspense in the trial comes from having a suspected murderer who doesn't remember what happened on the night the crime was committed. Penny, who's had a seven-month emotional workout playing B.J.'s tale of woe, says that acting the trial scenes was tricky because she had to play what B.J. couldn't remember and what she could only remember from having undergone hypnosis. "It's almost like playing two different characters - one who understands everything and one who has a mental block," says Penny. "It's the difference between the conscious and the subconscious level." Penny admits to having had a grandfather who used to "hypnotize my grandmother and take her to parties," where she would try to guess what objects were held up in front of her. Penny has never submitted to the process herself. "I don't think I could be hypnotized," she says.
The trial scenes, though intense and full of rancor as District Attorney Ben Arnold (Mitchell and Matthew Laurance) repeatedly badgers B.J. in cross-examination, were taped on a set that was buzzing with nervous energy and gallows humor. Says Nancy Grahn (Julia), "There are a lot of termination jokes going on. Every time we say, "You may step down, you're finished," someone says, "We're all finished." There's a lot of humor about the fact that we're all going to lose our jobs." The star also has to laugh at who's in the courtroom. "Just look around, it's the most incestuous courtroom," Grahn cracks. "My husband is the judge. All the witnesses I'm cross-examining are my friends and family. That's what makes this show special."
This also marks the first time on a soap where one actor had to leave a role in the middle of taping, only to be replaced by his twin. Mitchell Laurance thought he'd be finished with his Santa Barbara duty in time to report for his recurring role on Reasonable Doubts, but when the taping for the trial was extended, he realized he wouldn't be able to do both.
"They told me they would hire another actor," says Mitchell Laurance. "I wasn't used to this practice, so I walked out of the room and though, "Why don't they hire Matthew ?" At least that way, there's a logical connection." Matthew Laurance plays Mel Silver on Beverly Hills, 90210, and when Mitchell suggested him to Jan Powell in casting, the idea was approved. Fraternal twins Mitchell and Matthew do look alike, "but there is a difference," says Mitchell, who was born four minutes before his brother. "I think some people know who we are (viewers may have seen the brothers and their mother on a segment of The Oprah Winfrey Show that discussed men who couldn't commit to marriage). I think it will be interesting to see what different things we both have to bring to it." Mitchell says his district attorney portrayal has become "a lot meaner."
Grahn's point of view, Mitchell Laurance's focus as a performer has helped her. "It's
good for me to watch him," she says. "In past trials, I've been more soapy. He's
very subtle, which is keeping me in line. Sometimes you have to push the story
across in ways that would never be admissible in court. They've done a
relatively good job with the questioning.
According to Long, the hardest thing about proving B.J.'s innocence is the absence of a perpetrator. "It's simply Julia's client's word against a dead man," she says. "Proof of (their) sexual relationship gives her a motive for killing him. To me, Julia is really the voice of the underdog. She's there for the victims."
Long is relatively optimistic about B.J.'s life after the trial. "Her life is a work in progress," she says. "She comes from strong stock or she would have shattered to pieces. How she will able to integrate her (life) will take time and a lot of love. When the crisis part is over, and the hard part of living and working on a relationship comes, how are B.J. and Warren (Jack Wagner) going to make it through ? There is abiding love there, but they will have problems."
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