THE WILD WORLD OF `PORT CHARLES'; TIGHT-KNIT CAST KEEPS MOVING AT A FAST CLIP.
An impromptu striptease to funky music - at gunpoint. A cold, hangover-banishing shower that turns into hot lovemaking. Brain surgery with a power drill. A falling elevator. A psychotic intern bent on murder, arson and unauthorized plastic surgery. Kidnapping, stealthily administered hallucinogenic drugs, altered DNA results.
This ain't yo' momma's soap opera.
What it is is ``Port Charles,'' ABC-TV's newest entry in the daytime sweepstakes. Introduced in the same time slot where two predecessors flopped, ``PC'' - a spinoff of venerable ``General Hospital'' - isn't relying on the old coffee-klatch-over-the-kitchen-table storytelling.
The half-hour soap, which celebrated six months on the air Monday, has only 22 minutes (commercials take up the other eight minutes) to tell the story, so things move pretty fast. And the cast, mostly newcomers with little or no soap experience, hit the ground running in a two-hour movie and hasn't slowed down since.
``This is the first big break for most of us,'' said Jennifer Hammon, who plays Dr. Karen Wexler Cates, who did the skin-baring striptease. ``So we do our best to make it work.''
Although the mostly young cast has become as close as a big family on vacation in a station wagon, it's not all fun and games. Soap operas, whatever their detractors may think, are hard work - and serious business - despite the occasional moments of silliness and the Friday evenings at a local watering hole. There are few retakes, and actors are expected to know their lines and hit their marks the first time around.
``This is like Puffed Rice - `shot from guns,' '' said Edward Albert, who plays veteran - and philandering - surgeon Bennett Devlin. He has a leg up on the younger cast members, having acted in or directed 86 feature films and appeared in dozens of plays.
``You have to be able to do a full performance the minute you set foot on stage. And the pace! We shoot a half-hour every day. On a movie, it takes me two to four weeks to get that much on film.''
Even with the need for perfection, rehearsals are hit-and-miss, with cast members running lines in dressing rooms, in the cafeteria, on the phone at night. There are occasionally a few jitters, but there's also the sense that everybody's in the same boat.
``It's kind of like all starting the first day of school together,'' said Jay Pickett, who plays paramedic Frank Scanlon. ``We're all on the same page.''
``There are no stars,'' said Lisa Ann Hadley, who plays Frank's love interest, Dr. Julie Morris Devlin, Bennett's daughter. ``We're an ensemble. And we've become good friends, too.''
During a lunch break, most of the cast usually huddles on the sofa and floor in Hadley's dressing room - she has a big TV and VCR - watching old ``Brady Bunch'' reruns or a video somebody's brought to work.
But when it's time to work, makeup is checked, costumes are adjusted and feet pound down two floors of stairs from the third-floor dressing rooms to the first-floor soundstage, where director and crew are waiting.
But anybody with a TV set can catch up on the characters. Here's a glimpse of the real lives of some of the actors:
Surprise, surprise: On ``GH,'' Karen Wexler had been a drug addict and a stripper before moving away from Port Charles with her new husband; the role then was played by a different actress. Jennifer Hammon didn't have a clue about her character's history until she began to read the script for the two-hour debut movie - and discovered that she had to strip down to bra and panties and gyrate to rock music to distract a crazed gunman as the rest of the interns tried to save a life.
``My jaw dropped,'' Hammon said. ``I said, `Oh, what have I done?' It was really humiliating, so I could use that for the character. I worked with a choreographer on the dance. In the end, I just did it and didn't think about it.''
The bloody truth: Frank Scanlon may be a hero, but bloodshed makes Jay Pickett, who plays the paramedic, grow faint. ``The sight of blood and me do not mix,'' he says flatly. ``I'm squeamish around cuts and broken bones. I'd never be a paramedic in real life. On the show, though, I know it's not real blood, so it's OK.''
Just like me: Mitch Longley has used a wheelchair since he was injured at 17 in a car crash; the character he plays, Dr. Matt Harmon, lost the use of his legs in a skiing accident. And both Mitch and Matt are determined not to let their physical limitations derail their careers.
Longley helped research surgeons with disabilities and found a wheelchair with an apparatus that lifts a surgeon to a standing position so he can operate; scenes using the special chair were taped a few weeks ago. Later, Matt had to throw himself out of his wheelchair to save his nemesis, Dr. Boardman, who had been stabbed and was bleeding to death.
``This is a wonderful opportunity, through this character, to do some really great stuff,'' Longley said. ``I have no trouble with the physical stuff. Unlike Matt, I can move my legs a little. And I like to be tested a little bit. Like him, I do feel a need and a desire to prove myself, but I'm a little more laid-back about it.''
They ain't what they seem: Former TV newsman/stand-up comic Nolan North, who plays ambitious Dr. Chris Ramsey, is the cast clown off screen, joking and imitating Sean Connery and Jim Carrey. But when he dons his scrubs, he's all business - just like his character.
``A surgeon is like an auto mechanic,'' North said. ``He doesn't empathize with your car, he just wants to fix it ... Somebody's got to play the jerk, but nobody thinks they're a jerk. Chris is not out to get anybody, but if somebody gets in his way, he'll go to any means necessary to get what he wants.
``Besides,'' he grinned, ``I enjoy playing a jackass.''
Out of the loop: On the other end of the believability spectrum, Rib Hillis is much smarter than dimwitted Dr. Jake Marshak, who's comfortable in his research lab but usually about 10 steps behind the chicanery and infighting going on around him.
``It's hard, because I read the scripts and I know what's going on, but I have to pretend I don't have a clue,'' Hillis said. ``Jake knows about medicine, but he doesn't know about people. He needs to work on his interpersonal skills.''
Getting an attitude: For Julie Pinson, who portrays bitchy Dr. Eve Lambert, Bennett's former lover, the time she spends in the makeup chair gets her into character. ``I only get Eve's attitude when the hair and makeup go on,'' she said. ``I kinda think of my heart being in little compartments. I take the bitch part of Julie and magnify it 250 percent, and that's Eve.''
Psychotic break: Jon Lindstrom, who played both stalking psychiatrist Dr. Kevin Collins and his truly crazy twin brother, Ryan, on ``GH,'' is a mellow guy both on and off screen. But he can get worked up for a scene.
While Kevin is working out his mental confusion (when the boys were children, their mother molested Ryan and tried to molest Kevin), ``Ryan was just a pissed-off psychopath,'' Lindstrom said. As Ryan, Lindstrom was to fling a framed photo of the boys' mom across the room; the camera was to pan with the toss, recording the breaking glass - and Ryan's final break with reality.
Lindstrom threw the photograph with such force, the metal picture frame stuck in the door as if it had been a knife. Once the scene was finished, he got a standing ovation from the rest of the cast and crew. The door, still pierced by the picture frame, now decorates his dressing room.
Troubles of young doctors keep show's pulse racing
When ``Port Charles'' debuted June 1, it helped a lot if you were a ``General Hospital'' fan and could bring that show's history with you when watching the spinoff's two-hour movie premiere. Six months later, ``PC'' is on its own, with no experience necessary for new viewers.
So what's going on?
As on ``GH,'' the action centers on General Hospital, a major teaching hospital in the fictional waterfront town of Port Charles, N.Y. The stories center on the hospital's new crop of interns - their loves, their problems, their disappointments, their ambitions, their achievements.
Hard-nosed chief resident Dr. Ellen Burgess keeps a tight rein on her sometimes unruly charges, who include:
Dr. Julie Morris, naive but determined to make it on her own despite the meddling of her surgeon father, Dr. Bennett Devlin. Julie's new love is paramedic/high school teacher Frank Scanlon, who's wise to Julie's dad's machinations.
Dr. Eve Lambert, who unbeknown to Julie (until recently) had an affair with Julie's dad while the girls were in medical school. Julie and Eve were roommates until the nasty revelation.
Dr. Joe Scanlon, an earnest young medico who's Frank's younger brother; after their father's death, Frank helped put Joe through medical school.
Dr. Karen Wexler Cates, a former drug addict/stripper now embarking on a medical career. After recently ending a long-distance marriage to San Francisco undercover cop Jagger, she and Joe have become close - in fact, just about to heat up the sheets. Her dad, she recently learned, is multimillionaire attorney Scott Baldwin; that makes her half-sister to Scott's other daughter, 7-year-old Serena.
Dr. Chris Ramsey, an ambitious rich kid with simple tastes: Only the best will do. He wants the prestigious Quartermaine Residency and will do anything to get it. He'd also like to get Julie away from Frank, and he is paying cash-strapped Eve to help break up the lovebirds.
Dr. Matt Harmon, a crackerjack doctor confined to a wheelchair who's fighting his superiors for the right to become a surgeon, despite his disability. Sparks are beginning to fly between determined Matt and his rigid-but-beginning-to-bend boss, Ellen.
Dr. Jake Marshak, a brilliant DNA researcher who's a bit socially retarded. Until recently, he didn't have a clue that girlfriend Danielle Ashley was in cahoots with her slimy-but-clever uncle Rex to snatch both Serena and the hefty trust fund Serena's mom - Scott's dead wife, Dominique - left the little girl. Rex was also Dominique's uncle and feels he was done out of his rightful inheritance.
Dr. Kevin Collins, a defrocked psychiatrist (he's still trying to live down that little stalking/attempted murder incident, but that's another story) is Ellen's confidant. His lady love, Lucy Coe, acted as surrogate mom for Scott and dying Dominique, giving birth to Serena in a mountain cabin during a snowstorm.
Dr. Greg Cooper, the unhinged medico booted out of the residency program because of mental problems who's taking revenge on his compadres through blackmail, kidnapping, murder and other fun stuff.
3 Photos, Box
Photo: (1) Edward Albert and Barbara Stock relax between scenes on the ``Port Charles'' restaurant set. The half-hour drama is the newest of ABC-TV's soap operas.
Gus Ruelas/Daily News
(2) Mitch Longley, portraying handicapped Dr. Matt Harmon, uses a special wheelchair that holds him upright as his character performs surgery.
(3) Michael Dietz and Jennifer Hammon play Dr. Joe Scanlon and Dr. Karen Wexler Cates on ``PC.''
Box: Troubles of young doctors keep shows pulse racing (See Text)