By Michael A. Upton
June 07, 1999 12:00 PM

It’s Saturday afternoon at Susan Lucci’s Garden City, N.Y., home, and bells are ringing—first the phone, then the front door, then the phone again. Congratulatory calls have been pouring in all day: everyone from Lucci’s business associates to neighbors up the street—and down the Long Island Expressway, such as New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, in whose city a joyous, weeping Lucci had picked up her first-ever Daytime Emmy the night before after 29 years of playing conniving vixen Erica Kane on ABC’s All My Children. Every few minutes the doorbell chimes with fresh floral arrivals—including, appropriately, 19 dozen pink roses (Lucci’s favorite) from ABC executives—one bouquet for each year she has been nominated. Friends Mario Thomas and Phil Donahue have also sent flowers. On the lawn of her 3-story, 14-room colonial house, which is adjacent to the Garden City Golf Club, Lucci basks in a lounge chair and waves to golfers shouting congratulations from a nearby green. “Thank you, thank you very much,” she shouts back. Turning to visitors, she says, “I’m still in a dream.”

Later, her manager and husband Helmut Huber, 61, joins Lucci, 52, for a PEOPLE photo shoot on a wrought-iron bench in their garden. All that’s missing is a certain gold statuette. The night before, it stood on the couple’s bedroom dresser—”so I could see it when I woke up,” Lucci says. Now it’s leaning against the bench, just out of sight. “Where is that g———-d Emmy?” Huber asks. “Honey,” his wife of almost 30 years corrects him, “we don’t call it that anymore.”

Indeed they don’t, now that what many have called the unluckiest streak in showbiz history—a curse seemingly as old as Tutankhamen’s—has finally been lifted. Since 1978, Lucci, nominated every year but three (1979, 1980, 1994) as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, had walked away empty-handed, stoically holding back tears of disappointment most times. Even non-soap fans could empathize with the underdog she and her character had become. “Erica Kane, another Emmy passed you by,” went a 1993 song by the alternative rock band Urge Overkill.

To some, her Emmy drought had turned into something of a long-running gag, as predictable as Lucy yanking the football away from Charlie Brown. “If the election were held today,” quipped Tonight Show host Jay Leno in 1996, “Bob Dole would lose to Susan Lucci.” But Lucci’s biggest fans and closest friends weren’t laughing. “A lot of people thought [her losing streak] was a joke,” says One Life to Live’s Erika Slezak, a five-time Emmy winner. “Susan never thought it was. It hurt.”

“Sure I was disappointed,” says Lucci of her chronic losses. “But winning the Emmy was never the focal point of my life. The work—acting—really is the point, and that’s not just rhetoric. I don’t begrudge anyone for having won.”

Still, losing had never been easy. In 1982 she pounded her fist on a table when OLTL’s Robin Strasser took the best actress honors and reportedly cried a year later, after AMC castmate Dorothy Lyman garnered the gold. “She’d call me each time she lost,” says her mother, Jean, a retired nurse who lives in Florida with Lucci’s father, Victor, a former building contractor. “And I’d say, ‘Susan, you have such a wonderful husband and wonderful children. You’re happy, and come on now, life goes on just the same.’ And between tears she’d say, ‘Yes, I know, Mom.’ ”

One thing she knew was that Helmut and their children, Liza, now 24 and herself a fledgling actress (she’ll debut on NBC’s new soap Passions on July 5), and Andreas, 19, a freshman at Georgetown University, would be there to cushion the annual defeat. Returning home, she’d be cheered by the kids’ handmade posters, poems, flowers, even a chocolate cake they’d baked themselves. “I gave her the Best Mommy award a couple of years in a row,” says Liza, who now lives in L.A. “As time went on, I started getting more creative.” One time, Lucci recalls, Liza drew “comforting words on pieces of construction paper and laid them out on the steps all the way up to my bedroom. She had festooned the bed with helium balloons, so it looked like the bed would just fly in the air.”

That’s not the only thing that sent Lucci’s spirits soaring. “When she lost, she got through it by just talking about it,” says Liza. “We’d go out to brunch sometimes or go shopping. I’d reinforce how talented and beautiful she was and what a wonderful mother she was.” She adds, “I always knew she deserved to win, but I never knew why she didn’t.”

After the first few losses, speculating on Lucci’s chronic Emmy failure became something of a sport in daytime television circles. Some observers pointed to the character she played, an outlandish temptress who has bedded nearly every man in fictional Pine Valley while still finding time to hunt Nazis in South America, engineer a prison break, impersonate a nun and stare down a grizzly bear. Give that gal an Emmy? No way. Others blamed jealousy by the judges (a top-secret panel of TV industry employees selects the winners in each category). “The judges are often unemployed, and they know she’s the highest-paid actress,” says one insider of Lucci’s estimated $1.3 million-a-year salary. “So she can cry all the way to the bank.” But Thomas O’Neil, author of the 1992 book The Emmys, pins Lucci’s losses on the actress herself. Nominees each submit two episodes for consideration, and Lucci’s typically resembled “Wagnerian operatic scenes,” says O’Neil. “In the episodes she sent in last year, she was crying 75 percent of the time. She drowned her chances in a tsunami of tears.”

So how to explain her victory this year? Lucci’s entries focused on Erica Kane’s painful encounters with her anorectic daughter Bianca (Nathalie Paulding). “What Susan plays best, I think, are scenes of mother and daughter,” says Mimi Torchin, editor-in-chief of Soap Opera Weekly. “Susan loves her children, she’s a real family person, and her most honest emotions play on that motherhood level.” (By contrast, Guiding Light‘s Kim Zimmer, another best actress competitor, reportedly had the judges laughing at her character’s sci-fi-type confrontation with her own clone.)

It was TV, fittingly, that first inspired Lucci to become an actress. When she was a child, her favorite soaps were Search for Tomorrow and Love of Life, but she got hooked on prime time too. Evenings in the family’s Garden City home, where she and older brother James, now a management consultant, grew up, “I would sneak down the stairs at night,” says Lucci, “and stay on the stairs and watch the television in the living room my parents were watching.” In 1964, after graduating from Garden City High School, where she’d starred in most of the plays, Lucci enrolled as a drama major at Marymount College in Tarrytown, N.Y.

But her career was almost derailed her senior year when Lucci, riding in a car driven by her then fiancé, rammed into another car. Her face smashed into the windshield. “I felt no pain, but I knew I was hurt, and I felt something dripping down my face,” she recalls. “When we got to the emergency room, the nurses were talking about me in the past tense, saying, ‘Oh, I could tell she was a beautiful girl.’ One of them saw my engagement ring and said, ‘Gee, honey, do you think he’ll still marry you?’ ” In fact, Lucci says, she might have been scarred for life if not for the talented plastic surgeon who operated on her. “I completely recovered,” she says. (By eerie coincidence, Erica Kane is currently wearing a Phantom of the Opera-like black mask, the result of disfigurement from an auto accident. When Lucci heard about the story line, says AMC creator Agnes Nixon, “she got a funny look on her face and said, ‘I know you didn’t know this, but…’ “)

It took another soap-operatic twist to end her engagement. In the summer of 1965, just after her freshman year at Marymount, Lucci was back home working as a waitress at the Garden City Hotel. The chef and head of the hotel’s food and beverage service was a smitten Austrian, one Helmut Huber. “The first time I saw Susie, it hit me,” says Huber, who gave up his career as a hotel and restaurant executive in 1982 to manage his wife’s career. “Still today, she walks in a room, and I just light up.” The feeling was mutual. “I thought at the time he was an attractive older man,” says Lucci. Their nine-year age gap kept them apart until 1968, when Lucci and her Colorado beau were holding their engagement party at the same hotel. Helmut, then working for a hotel chain, happened to be there visiting friends. “My parents invited him to join the party,” says Lucci. Once again she found herself warming to the older man. Then, she says, “Helmut leaned over to my mother and said, ‘This thing between Susie and this boy is never going to last.’ I heard about that much later. And my mother agreed with him, but she didn’t tell me that.” A few months later, Lucci broke up with her fiancé. She and Huber eventually began dating, and within a year they had wed, on Sept. 13, 1969.

That same year, Lucci embarked on another long-running relationship. A new soap called All My Children was holding auditions, and Lucci wound up getting the part of Erica, then a feisty, headstrong teenager. Lucci knew the type. In college, she says, “I was a self-centered, haughty girl.” She drew upon her own callowness to play Erica, and it worked. “I saw the audition tapes, and she just stood out,” says Nixon. “There was never a question, ever.”

By the early ’80s, Lucci’s Emmy curse had already begun, but she didn’t mind putting on the (under)dog. Spoofing her pouty diva image on Saturday Night Live and in sugar-substitute commercials, Lucci broadened her appeal. She made a string of TV movies with pulp titles like Mafia Princess and Lady Mobster. “The luckiest thing that ever happened to her is not winning,” says her pal Joan Rivers. “Everyone knows who she is because of it.”

The Emmy snub continued to haunt her, however. “She wants recognition from her peers,” explains Agnes Nixon. She finally got it on May 21 when the best actress presenter, Young and the Restless hunk Shemar Moore, announced, “The streak is over! Susan Lucci!” Recalls Lucci: “I heard a lot of cheering, and my husband swept me up in his arms and I asked him, ‘Did they really say my name? Is it okay to go up onstage?’ ” She made it up to the podium, trembling, as Oprah Winfrey cheered ecstatically from the wings. Watching at home as their daughter received a minute-and-a-half standing ovation from the 5,600 in the Theater at Madison Square Garden audience, Jean Lucci says, “My husband and I looked at each other and started to cry. We said, ‘Oh thank God, thank God.’ ”

“My parents were beside themselves,” says Lucci, who called them on a cell phone. “And my mother said she liked the way I wore my hair, and she liked my dress.”

Though the newly crowned Emmy queen discouraged her daughter from following in her sudsy footsteps—”I had apprehensions, sure. But she just jumped in and loved acting so much, and I could see the passion in her”—her own zest for playing Erica seems endless. “The truth is, I’m happy. This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime parts. That’s one reason I’ve stayed.” (Her AMC contract comes up for renewal next year.) Still, she’d like to branch out. “I’m trying very hard to go back to singing now that my kids are grown. I’d like to try Broadway,” says the former college musical star. “But even if I just sing for myself, I’ll be happy.”

As will Erica Kane. In an upcoming episode, 19 dozen roses—not unlike the ones that now adorn Lucci’s living room—will turn up in Erica’s own opulent home. When two other characters ask about their significance, Erica doesn’t miss a beat. “Nineteen,” she explains, “has always been my lucky number.”

Michael A. Upton

Jennifer Longley in Garden City