Cover Story

Totally Knots

On the set of the ''Knots Landing'' finale -- We give you an exclusive behind the scenes look at the last great prime-time soap starring Michele Lee, Michelle Phillips, and Nicolette Sheridan

Knots Landing hits episode 300 this month, a milestone for primetime's last great soap. The secret of its success: a bewitching mixture of suburban hanky-panky and antics that set standards for TV weirdness. So how will this season end? Very Strangely.

It's the morning after the Academy Awards, and the sun has just risen in Los Angeles. ''This is the kind of street where hit men take a guy just before they kill him,'' says a doleful visitor to a particularly barren stretch of North Hollywood pavement. Junked auto bodies and dismembered toilets clutter one side of the intersection, and an abandoned warehouse stands across the way. Between them is a set of unused railroad tracks. Indeed, this does look like a good place for a murder — except for the trailers, the equipment trucks, and the 75 actors, stuntmen, and technicians swarming around. As it turns out, this is an even better place for a cliff-hanger — the spot where, on May 9, CBS' Knots Landing will leave 25 million viewers in panting suspense.

Michele Lee emerges from her dressing room, mashing down an antenna in a peculiarly Los Angeles piece of body language that means: I am hanging up my cellular phone in midair. ''I never sleep well before a 6 a.m. call,'' she announces. ''Hence, I am tired.'' She heads for makeup, yawning politely.

If the cast of Knots Landing is a little worn-out after a full season's work, the show itself is anything but. On Thursday, April 25, at 10 p.m., viewers will see the 12-year-old prime-time serial's 300th episode. Three hundred hours. That's a 13-day, no-sleep, nonstop caffeine jag of Southern California intrigue — of kidnappings, conspiracy, and blackmail, poisonings, psychos, and squabbles, divorce, adultery, and remarriage, death, rebirth, and any deadly sins not covered by the above; of Alec Baldwin, Donna Mills, Julie Harris, and Lisa Hartman, who came and went; of Kevin Dobson, Michelle Phillips, and Nicollette Sheridan, who came and stayed; and most of all, of Lee, Ted Shackelford, and Joan Van Ark, who have been there from the beginning.

With J.R. Ewing taking Knots' progenitor, Dallas, into the sunset on May 3, Knots Landing will become the lone survivor among the '80s soaps and the fourth-longest-running hour-long drama in TV history. ''We'll pass Bonanza next season,'' says executive producer David Jacobs, who created the series and continues to guide it. ''Dallas will take us two more years. Gunsmoke [which ran 20 seasons] I don't know about.''

While high-gloss counterparts like Dynasty and Falcon Crest eventually choked on their own glitz (all those power-crazed Channings and Carringtons suddenly seem quaint artifacts of the Reagan '80s), Knots has succeeded by daring to be both zanier and more mundane than other TV soaps. ''The reason shows like this go off the air is that people get sick of the characters,'' says Jacobs. ''On Knots, there are so many not to get sick of.'' Here's what you missed, or saw, this season: Anne impersonated a dead Greek woman and dug through dog doo in search of a valuable microfiche. Paige slept with Sumner. Linda slept with Sumner. Paige caught Linda sleeping with Sumner. Linda slept with Michael. Anne pretended to sleep with Sumner to irk Paige, who stopped sleeping with Tom, who left town. Frank, a widower, didn't sleep with anyone. Val got bonked on the head and developed a scary alternate personality with a harsh new haircut. Danny broke Gary's arm. Julie let Danny drown. Karen worried about Val. Mack worried about Jason. Frank worried about Julie. And Claudia stole somebody's liver — the vital organ, not the menu item. Confused? Not to worry. Knots shifts plot lines with gleeful abandon and a keen radar for both the touching (abused kids, brain tumors, family strife) and the bizarre (you name it). ''We're so good at flipping and flopping,'' says Lee, ''that the audience can always expect us to get out of a bind.''

''The best-laid plans mean nothing,'' says Van Ark. ''If they see that a story line isn't working, they bail. And I count that as a plus.'' So do viewers: This show, in all its chaos, is fun.

As camera and sound crews begin to ready their equipment for this morning's smashing season finale, Michelle Phillips arrives. Phillips, resplendent ex-Mama (of the Mamas and the Papas) and current mama (of Wilson Phillips' Chynna), plays Anne Matheson, the show's comic vixen. Anne has fallen on hard times lately, and now appears to be homeless. ''This is what it's come to, darling,'' sighs Phillips, extending 10 perfect scarlet talons. ''Even in my bereft state, the nails are perfectly done.'' Clad in a black catwoman suit, huge curlers, and outsize sunglasses, Phillips looks about as penniless as Ivana Trump, but never mind: Glamorous catastrophe is well within the spirit of her character. However, this early in the day, Phillips looks slightly too subdued to project Anne's high-decibel hysteria. Apparently, there was an Oscar party, and... ''I was a very bad girl,'' she purrs, in a tone that implies her definition of ''bad'' is a lot more exciting than yours. With that, she hides in an equipment truck to read the Los Angeles Times.

Michele Lee has already made her way to the site of her big scene and is ready for business. This is fitting: Her character, Karen MacKenzie, is efficient, kind, and understanding. Today, she's headed for big trouble, but Karen, onetime widow, single mom, addict, kidnappee, shooting victim, talk show hostess, and target of a psychotic fan, is resilient. Some on Knots say the show could not survive the loss of its moral mouthpiece. ''Karen is the tent pole,'' says Jacobs. ''She says the things I want to say. She's the voice of the viewer.''

That has its drawbacks. ''Karen has gone through so much that it's hard to get her a [new] story line,'' says Lee. ''Although she may be the only character who doesn't need a story line. She's a rock. She helps solve the problems.'' Doesn't that get, uh, boring? ''Certainly, after 12 years of playing Karen, you think, 'Oh, God, I wish I could play the town slut,''' she says. ''But I have to save those roles for my hiatus.''

Lee steps gingerly through a mud puddle to confer with director Lorraine Ferrara about her day. Lee and the show's other actors have to play a complex series of interlocking scenes that make up Knots' cliff-hanger. The season finale will unfold exactly like this:

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