What do you do with a popular character whoâ€™s been prominently featured on your daytime drama for 30 years, portrayed by an actress whoâ€™s won two Daytime Emmys for the role?
If youâ€™re the powers-that-be at All My Children, you pretend none of that ever happened.
So it was that in 2006, Brooke English â€“ the showâ€™s teen hellcat-turned-respected-journalist â€“ simply vanished from fictional Pine Valley. Not killed off, not fleeing jealous ex-lovers or evil twins, not going upstairs and forgetting to come back down â€“ just gone.
Fans were predictably outraged by the arbitrariness of the fate of the well-liked character, scoffing on message boards and in chat rooms at having to watch Brooke's friends and family -- including a son and two ex-husbands -- carry on without acknowledging her existence.
Also frustrated was actress Julia Barr, who having suffered months of little to no storyline on the show ultimately declined the productionâ€™s offer to be demoted to a non-contract, recurring part. Barr, like many viewers, mistakenly thought that at least some on-air explanation for Brookeâ€™s disappearance would be made.
But the suspense ends on Feb. 23, when Barr returns as Brooke to AMC, which since her absence â€“ not entirely coincidentally â€“ has cycled through four head writers. Barrâ€™s contract will find her commuting from New York to Los Angeles, where production recently relocated, with her storyline sure to involve both the magazine she once ran, Tempo, and two of her former spouses, Tad (Michael C. Knight) and Adam (David Canary).
Reaction to her return has been swift and, to hear Barr tell it, overwhelming. Her brief, one-day cameo in early January to help celebrate the series' 40th anniversary alone resulted in a TV Guide profile centered around her, and the news of her return as a regular has soap fans cheering wildly.
So: Whatâ€™s Brooke been doing for the past four years?
â€œThatâ€™s the million-dollar question!â€ Barr laughs. â€œIâ€™m still waiting to find out.â€
Terms of any daytime actor's contract are notoriously difficult to ascertain. But while Barr declines to give specifics, she says, " If the show gives me good stories to play and the schedules are aligned, Iâ€™d stay on, come back and forth, disappear and returnâ€¦ whatever!
â€œI really enjoyed my time off, too," she adds, "traveling, volunteering with animals shelters, having family time â€“ so with or without AMC, there are always good plans in place.â€
In addition to doing weekly hands-on volunteer work at a New Jersey-based animal shelter, Barr has also been involved with developing a web project with AMC co-star and friend Jill Larson (Opal Cortlandt) and spending more time with her husband and their daughter Alison Hirschlag â€“ whoâ€™s pursuing her own theatrical career in New York City (next up for Alison: a play called The Weird, opening in February; Barr encourages fans to check out www.marconitheatre.com for more info).
Given her abrupt departure from the show, was Barr surprised when AMCâ€™s current producers and returning head writer Lorraine Broderick came calling?
â€œNothing ever surprises me when it comes to daytime television,â€ she remarks. â€œI have always loved Brooke, and she is connected to so many characters on the AMC canvas that it makes sense to bring her back. I also think the audience has wanted her back and has wondered where she has been.â€
The commute to work from her New Jersey home has its own challenges; gone are the days of simply driving into midtown Manhattan for the dayâ€™s shoot.
â€œRight now the plan is to go out and stay for a few weeks at a time, and come back when the shooting schedule allows,â€ Barr says. â€œMy husband will visit me out there as well.â€
Barr acknowledges that her return to daytime drama comes at what seems to be a critical juncture for soaps as a genre: since she left AMC, both Guiding Light and As the World Turns have been canceled, and soap ratings overall have continued to decline.
â€œIt is a scary time in the industry, and it saddens me to see the genre shrink so drastically,â€ she admits. â€œI know so many people losing jobs in this business, and of course it is a real loss for New York to lose three shows [GL, ATWT, and AMC]. Good writing and good acting are just not enough anymore to keep a show on the air. So much more is at stake.â€
Which makes her victory lap at AMC all the sweeter, she says. "The fans are so loyal and have supported me through my entire run as Brooke. I am so happy to be able to bring the character back for them."