September 19, 2011 12:00 PM

During her 41 years as All My Children vixen Erica Kane, Susan Lucci has shed thousands of tears on camera. Lately her offscreen demeanor has been just as dramatic as that on her ABC soap opera, which ends its run Sept. 23. “Emotions have been washing over us at unexpected times,” says Lucci. “On the plane last week with my husband, I was reading a magazine and all of a sudden I burst into tears.” The waterworks returned Aug. 30 after she filmed her final All My Children scene and again that night at a celebratory dinner near the show’s Glendale, Calif., set with her husband, Helmut Huber. As Huber raised his wineglass to toast his wife of 42 years, “he looked at me and said, ‘Here’s to new beginnings,'” recalls Lucci, adding that at the table she welled up all over again. “That was so the right attitude.”

It’s one Lucci has adopted as she bids farewell to Erica Kane, the headstrong, man-eating character she played since Children‘s 1970 premiere. “I’ve been doing this my entire adult life,” says Lucci, 64, of the role for which she famously won an Emmy in 1999 after 18 excruciating losses. Speaking to PEOPLE the day after wrapping, Lucci admits to being unsure of what happens next. “I was up this morning at 5:15, and my wheels started spinning,” she says.

After all, she has been following a similar routine since she was a wide-eyed newlywed fresh out of college. “Every time my contract would come up for renewal, I would reevaluate,” says Lucci, who was the only original cast member to remain on the show daily for its entire run. “But it developed into this extraordinary part, and I found her a lot to walk away from.” She also enjoyed tremendous job flexibility: After giving birth to her daughter Liza in 1975 and son Andreas five years later, Lucci negotiated to have their birthdays and their first days of school off each year. “Family is priority, absolutely,” says husband Huber, 73. She was also given the freedom to explore other gigs, including a stint in Broadway’s Annie Get Your Gun that began in 1999 and competing on Dancing with the Stars in 2008.

But in late 2009 her life changed dramatically when, in a money-saving effort, ABC shifted Children‘s production from its longtime Manhattan set to the West Coast. Then, last April, the network announced that the show was canceled. “I was completely blindsided,” says Lucci, who heard the news from series creator Agnes Nixon a few hours before it was made public. “No matter where I go, there are such passionate, excited fans. I didn’t see it coming.”

While a production company is in talks to resurrect Children on the Internet (Lucci calls the possibility “exciting” but is unsure whether she would participate in it), the show’s future remains murky. To that end, Lucci says, the Sept. 23 finale is rife with cliff-hangers: “Always leave them wanting more!”

The biggest cliff-hanger of all is what Lucci herself will do next. She’s moving back to her Garden City, N.Y., home, has begun working with her vocal instructor again (she has already lined up some singing gigs with Regis Philbin) and is “listening” to other acting offers. “My wish for her is a sitcom,” says Huber. No matter what comes next, Lucci says, one thing is certain: “I want to be as excited about what I do as I was when I started playing Erica Kane.”

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