Tv's Domestics Rave (and Rant) About the Job of Serving Stars

They are the unheralded heroes who do the grunt work for the Channings, the Ewings, the Carringtons and those other glitzy prime-time soap families. Yes, we’re talking about the servants, those dutiful domestics who answer phones, discover kidnappings and do the dirty laundry. (They never seem to have the last word or a last name, either.) Do they ever get to show off their acting talents? Or share in the publicity that the big stars get? Not on your life. Yet those who portray the hired help are show business pros who take their roles seriously. Their challenge is a weighty one: How to make “Dinner is served” sound like an original line. To find out what delights and depresses those who only stand and wait, PEOPLE talked to four of TV’s most faithful.

Dallas’ Teresa

The scene: Southfork. The event: dinner. The assembled Ewing clan is dripping in designer clothes and diamonds, even the women. Enter dutiful Roseanna Christiansen, who plays Teresa, the family maid. She is dripping in nothing, except for the fancy silver coffee pot in her hand. The cameras are ready, but Christiansen is not. Without warning she breaks into tears and dashes for her tiny dressing room. “I was bawling like a kid,” says Christiansen, 35, in her fifth year on Dallas. “For the first time I asked myself, ‘Why am I waiting on these people hand and foot? Why am I wearing this shmatte when they’re wearing diamonds and designer gowns?’ ”

Why, indeed. For years she has been waging her own private battle for respectability. “When I asked producer Leonard Katzman for more meat in my role, he just looked at me,” she recalls sadly. Nor has the production side been receptive to her creative suggestions. For a scene occuring at 2 a.m., “They had me answer the door in full uniform. I said, ‘What do you think I am, a fireman? Do you think I sleep in my uniform and jump down a pole to answer the door?’ I got no answer from the director.” Roseanna clings to the hope that, like almost everybody else who has been popping up on the show, she will turn out to be a previously unheard of relative. “I hope they find I’m J.R.’s long-lost daughter,” she says.

Christiansen’s biggest moment came three years ago when she got the chance to hide Sue Ellen’s (Linda Gray) liquor bottles. “I got to console her,” she says proudly of a scene that only amounted to a few seconds and was never aired. “My chores go in spurts. The writers seem to think, ‘Oh, it’s telephone week,’ and I end up answering the telephone a lot. Then I’ll spend another week answering all the doors. One year I spent the whole season polishing the silverware.”

Christiansen was born in Queens, N.Y. She moved to Los Angeles in 1974 to study acting. Prior to Dallas, her most notable television stint was in 1981, when she appeared for two weeks as a maid on The Jeffersons.

Her $850-a-day paycheck (she averages two workdays a week) and a part-time secretarial job help ease the debt she has been mired in since her arrival in Hollywood. The same thing that had her in tears on the set has her bank balance in the red: envy. “The money I make on the show would be enough if I hadn’t tried to compete with the big stars,” allows Christiansen, who is single and lives in a tiny one-room apartment in Westwood. “I looked at my checkbook once, and all the money was gone, spent on junk, ego-type stuff. I would have my nails done at the Beverly Hills Hotel [at $35 a visit, including extras]. I was just playing the part, and it didn’t work.”

Falcon Crest’s Chao-Li

Of all the nighttime soap domestics, Falcon Crest’s Chao-Li Chi, who plays Chao-Li (they wanted an authentic Chinese name so they used his real one), is the one most seen and heard. “At first, I was not only butler, chauffeur and all-around houseperson, I also gave sage advice to Lance Cumson [Lorenzo Lamas], who, let’s face it, needs it.” Now, as the show ends its fifth year, Chao-Li’s daughter (Rosalind Chao) has mysteriously turned up on the Channing household doorstep. Her character, Li Ying, has wholesome values, but not wholesome enough to keep her from eventually getting involved with Lance and Cole (William R. Moses). “They don’t want an innocent girl who’s supposed to be from China rolling in and out of bed as soon as she hits the winery,” Chi explains. “It would arouse ethnic resentment.”

Chi, 59, was a doctoral candidate in philosophy and is acutely sensitive to the portrayal of Chinese on TV—when, that is, they get portrayed at all. “For weeks at a time, I’m the only Chinese actor on TV,” he says. “We are still not getting our fair share, but I don’t think that’s a conscious, deliberate bias. My own feeling has always been that I play a role wherever it is needed—as long as it is not degrading.”

Chi’s own beginnings were anything but humble. He was born in China’s Shaanxi province, where his father, Kung-ch’uan Chi, was Commissioner of Education. Before the Japanese invaded China in 1937 and his home was expropriated, his father cooked up an elaborate ruse to get his family out of the country. They moved to the U.S. and settled in Manhattan. After the war, Chao-Li’s father was invited back to China to join the law faculty of Peking University; Chi remained to attend college (St. John’s, Annapolis, Md.). “Other people say they ran away from home to join the circus,” he says. “In my case, my family ran away from me! In my sorrow, I turned to the stage.”

Chi, who studied dance, fought being typecast as a delivery boy, dishwasher or, worse, a “professional enemy, usually a nasty North Korean,” and had bit parts in movies and plays. Only once, while on tour in the ’50s, did he suffer any professional envy. “I had a part in The King and I, and I knew I could do a better job than Yul Brynner.”

Chi gave up acting temporarily when his wife, Catharina, became pregnant with the first of their two daughters. For six years he taught dance education in Dayton, Ohio. Then in 1975, after funding for his dance program was halted, he went to Hollywood and landed the role of a Chinese sidekick on the short-lived TV series, Khan.

Chi, who lives with his family in the San Fernando Valley, knows his job and $6,500 weekly salary is secure as long as the show stays in the safe zone of the Nielsens. He’s on the faculty of L.A.’s California Acupuncture College, where he has taught Chinese philosophy. “I need to keep my mind busy since my job is a little bit make-believe,” he says.

Knots Landing’s Maria

Peruvian-born Jenny Gago, 33, made it clear what she would and would not do as Donna Mills’s maid, Maria, on Knots Landing. “I said, ‘I weel not talk like dis!’ ” recalls Gago of her interview with the show’s casting director. “And I said I would not play it subservient.” The strong-willed Gago had it her way.

Gago has been on Knots, earning $850 a day, for three years. She works approximately three days a week, that is, if you call what she does work. “I just go there and have a good time.” Off-camera, there is joking galore. “Ted [Shackleford] is always saying, ‘I need to help Maria in the kitchen,’ ” laughs Gago, who has appeared on such series as Remington Steele and Simon & Simon.

There is no caste problem among the Knots cast. After her first day of shooting, Gago was taking the long trek from the studio toward her car when Mills drove by in her Jaguar and offered a ride. “She didn’t have to do that,” says Gago. “There’s no pecking order on the show outside of Donna, who happens to like her special dressing room,” says Gago. “When the other leads aren’t there, I get to use their dressing rooms, which are beautiful.”

Gago, who is single and lives in West L.A., is a UCLA theater arts graduate whose family moved to the U.S. when she was 2. She still works three days a week as an aerobics instructor at an L.A. health club. Come this fall, she’ll play a Peruvian psychic in the ABC miniseries Out on a Limb. As she did on Knots, she won’t let herself be stereotyped. Asked to audition for the small role of a Latin woman in the recent TV movie Shattered Spirits, she insisted instead on reading for the role of a psychiatrist. She got it. Says Gago: “You can sit back and say, ‘I’m Latino and they don’t let Latinos play psychiatrists,’ or you can get pushy about reading for that part.”

Dynasty’s Gerard

“It’s almost as if you’re deaf, dumb and blind to the chaos swirling around you,” sighs William Beckley, Blake Carrington’s silver-haired majordomo, Gerard, on Dynasty. Beckley, 56, had an instant inkling of just how extensive his role would be. At his audition, he was asked to read one line: “I assembled the staff in the library as you requested, Mr. Carrington.”

Once the show’s country club maitre d’, he now sees himself as a catalyst in his $850-a-day role. “I’ll have a line like ‘Miss so-and-so is waiting in the library, Sir,’ and Mr. Carrington goes into the library, and there’s this big scene.” Like the Marines, Gerard is best in a crisis. “I’m usually hovering, waiting to help,” says Beckley.

Gerard is far above menial chores. When a casting director once suggested that he carve the family turkey, the director was aghast. “He said a major-domo would never carve a turkey,” recalls Beckley.

Beckley was born and raised in London and worked onstage and in British TV before moving to the U.S. in 1960. He has played hairdressers and choreographers and appeared in movies such as King Rat and The Sound of Music but is best known for his butler duties. He played a devious butler on General Hospital in the early ’80s before joining Dynasty’ in 1983. Beckley, who lives in Big Sur country, has no illusions about his role. “You could say I’m a very expensive prop,” he says cheerfully. “I don’t mind being a prop. I’m not offended. People tell me, ‘You don’t do much, but what you do, you do very well.’ ”

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