AS ALYSSA MILANO AND HOLLY MARIE COMBS FINALLY COME CLEAN ABOUT SHANNEN DOHERTY, THE QUESTION REMAINS: CAN A RECONJURED CHARMED STILL WORK MAGIC?
Shannen Doherty may be long gone, but she hasn't been exorcised.
It's mid July, two months after the 30-year-old actress abruptly announced her departure from WB's Charmed, yet a giant poster featuring her still hangs in executive producer Brad Kern's office. The wayward with stands front and center between her original costars on the sisters-in-sorcery hit, Holly Marie Combs and Lori Rom. Rom, now on Sci Fi Channel's The Chronicle, was cast as youngest sib Phoebe in the pilot before producer Aaron Spelling replaced her—poof!—with his Melrose Place tenant Alyssa Milano. It's a striking image, impossible to miss, and Milano takes note of it the moment she arrives.
"Maybe witch No. 5 will be our lucky charm," she jokes, referring to Rose McGowan, 25, Doherty's replacement of sorts, who joins the comely coven this fall (Thursdays, 9 P.M./ET) as spirited half sister Paige. Milano settles onto a black leather couch and tries to keep the mood as bright as the lemon-colored lace-up top she's paired with snug low-rise jeans.
"You know, I have a dentist appointment this afternoon," she says. "I really wouldn't mind missing it, so feel free to keep me here as long as you'd like." But one look at the way Milano, 28, is perched tensely on the edge of her seat, drinking coffee from a jumbo mug, and you'd think she'd rather have a root canal than enduring an interview.
And not without reason: When Doherty left her Charmed role as eldest sister Prue last spring after three seasons, it was amid rumors of a bitter rivalry with Milano, something Doherty has not denied. The tabloid magnet's hasty exit seemed like déjà vu—after all, it was the second time in a decade she had bid adieu to a Spelling show after reports of friction with costars. (The first was in 1994, when the producer dismissed her from Beverly Hills, 90210.) Her departure has left the future success of Charmed—which returns with a two-hour premiere September 27—in question at a time when WB is counting on it to continue enchanting viewers now that crown jewel Buffy the Vampire Slayer has pulled up stakes and moved to rival UPN.
Charmed hardly seemed jinxed when it debuted in the fall of 1998. The publicity surrounding Doherty's reunion with former boss Spelling helped the supernatural soap conjure up the highest-rated series debut in WB's history, while its modern mix of glamour and girl power warded off Dawson's Creek and Buffy, making it the network's second most popular show (after 7th Heaven, also produced by Spelling).
By all accounts, things were down right sisterly off-screen as
well. "This is the best job I've ever had because we bonded immediately," Milano
gushed about her costars in a February 1999 interview. "We have so much in
common." For one, all three had grown up bewitching audiences on TV: Doherty on
the short-lived spin-off Little House: A New Beginning, then on 90210; Milano on
the hit comedy Who's the Boss?; and Combs on David E. Kelly's quirky Picket
Fences. When Milano married rocker Cinjun Tate in January 1999, Doherty and
Combs even served as bridesmaids. (Milano and Tate have since split.)
"We were very close for the first couple of years," says Combs, 27, who plays middle sister Piper. "It's not like we just worked together and went home."
But trouble was undeniably brewing between Doherty and Milano by the time production started on the third season last summer. The fawning quotes to the press had stopped, as had the costars' time together away from the set. As Milano puts it, "I wasn't going to call [Shannen] on the weekend to go hang out." Rumors quickly swirled that Doherty was resentful of Milano's growing popularity, which translated into several endorsement deals, including one with MCI. But those close to the situation claim it was more complicated than that. "There were no angels," Combs says. "We all had our bad days. We all [got] stressed out."
That's hardly surprising, says executive producer Kern. "People on a TV set work together 12 to 14 hours a day, five days a week. Rarely have I seen cast members stay or even become best friends."
Adding to the friction, says Combs, was the stars' growing frustration with the show's direction. "We were in [a] rut, where we felt like we were doing the same episodes over and over again," she says. Doherty, in particular, "wanted to make the show bigger and better and stretch her boundaries," says Combs, who has been friends with the actress for eight years, and still speaks frequently with her. "I'd see her in the morning and she'd be like, 'OK, how are we going to fix this scene?' She was really dedicated and she didn't have a lot of patience for anyone [she felt] wasn't."
Whatever broke the spell, "we definitely didn't get along," admits Milano. "Shannen and I are very different people, and I think it's almost like a roommate. If you spend that much time with someone and there are differences anyway, you're not always going to get along."
Both Milano and Combs deny tabloid reports that Doherty would only speak to them when the cameras were rolling. But Milano acknowledges that she and her former costar could get downright witchy: "There were times when I'd come in and say, 'Good morning, Shannen,' and she didn't say anything to me. And there were times when she'd come in and say, 'Good morning, Alyssa,' and I wouldn't say anything to her."
In an attempt to defuse the situation, Paramount, the studio that produces Charmed, eventually sent a mediator to the set, something Combs said made things worse. "First of all, it was none of his business," she says. "And we certainly didn't want him reporting our girlie problems back to Paramount."
"The problems we had weren't things some big company mediator could fix," Combs adds quietly. "They needed to be fixed between us [by] going into [each other's] trailers and saying, 'All right, I don't like it when you do this.' Or, 'I didn't like it when you said this.'"
That apparently never happened. Doherty has contended that Milano eventually got fed up and issued producers an ultimatum—either Doherty walked or she would—but Milano insists that it isn't true. "I never even thought about doing that," she says. "I couldn't sleep knowing I backed out of something I'd committed to."
Instead, according to several sources, it was Doherty who approached Paramount executives last December and asked to be released from her contract. "[She] was like, 'This is getting too problematic. Just let me go,'" says Combs. "She didn't want all the bad oress again. She wanted to exit gracefully." But the studio wouldn't have it. Continues Combs: "They stamped their feet and said, 'No, you cannot leave. We will sue you,'" (Both Paramount and Spelling declined to comment.)
Doherty's eventual dismissal, then, came as a surprise. And the form Combs says it took—a phone call to Doherty's lawyer after the embattled actress had flown to Winnipeg, Canada, to start shooting Another Day, USA's upcoming Francis Ford Coppola TV-movie—still clearly angers her. "How do you go from directing the season finale to being [given] a pink slip over the phone, when [you're] in another country, at eight at night?" Combs says. "It was really a tacky way to go about it."
"I'm sure I'm going to get many phone calls about this," she adds, "but you know what? I don't care. [The producers] know I was not happy with how it was handled. You just don't do that to a person, [especially] a person who has basically created two hit shows for you."
While no one's officially saying why Doherty was ultimately cut loose, a series insider says, "It eventually became clear that [either Doherty or Milano] had to go." And Doherty may have been the safer choice, according to Stacey Lynn Koerner, an industry analyst with Initiative Media: "Alyssa is just as popular, is not more so, than Shannen. And when Shannen left 90210, the series did just fine."
Whether Charmed can still work its magic without Doherty remains to be seen. But WB and Kern are putting on a brave face. "If we'd lost two girls, then I'd be nrevous," he says. "But nobody would've been OK with making the change if they were [worried]. That's why I keep that poster [with the pilot's original threesome]. I believe the show has become bigger than any one of us."
Adds WB entertainment president Jordan Levin: "We've got two really great stars in Alyssa and Holly. Adding Rose to the cast brings a whole new dynamic that's edgy and compelling." McGowan pops up in the season premiere, which includes a funeral for Doherty's Prue, who was left for dead after battling a demon in last spring's finale. Another plot twist: Julian McMahon, who plays Milano's baddie boyfriend Cole, has recently begun dating Doherty. But he shrugs off any awkwardness with Milano: "To be honest, I'm usually pretty oblivious to that stuff."
Milano, too, claims she's put her issues with Doherty to rest. "I have a lot of respect for her," says Milano of her former costar, with whom she has not spoken since their last day on the set. "I think she's incredibly smart and talented, and I wish her happiness, love, success."
But closure hasn't come as easily to Combs. While she says she still has a good relationship with Milano, she felt "a definite sense of loss" when she returned to the set in July. "In a way," Combs says, "I have to treat this as a brand-new job, a totally different show I'm doing, because if I [don't], it's going to be a really hard year." •