Actress Joan Van Ark overcomes a bad connection


She has been beaten, drugged, impregnated, lied to and nearly impaled, but Valence Ewing, "Knots Landing's" resident victim, perseveres. And so, for that matter, does Joan Van Ark, the actress who plays her. For 13 years, Ms. Van Ark's Valence has suffered with dignity, as the actress infuses one of prime-time television's most popular characters with pathos, vulnerability and bottle-blond charm.

But finally, after innumerable near-disasters, Valence's gig may be up: Rumor has it this is Ms. Van Ark's last season. While she steps around the issue, she strongly implies that she'll soon be singing her swan song. She wants to do other television roles and theater.

Ms. Van Ark was about to do the latter -- a stint in "Love Letters" in Los Angeles -- the morning of this interview. So busy was she -- she had just finished directing a "Knots" episode -- that she conducted this chat via car phone. Which, unlike Valence, proved to be entirely undependable.

Q: Can you hear me? Hello?

A: Yes I can.

Q: Good. You've played Valence Ewing now for 13 years. If they decided to kill her off, how would you want her to go?

A: In a big way! Probably by being ravaged by so many men at the same time that her heart went out. What a way to go! Hello? Hello?

Q: Hello.

A: Oh.

Q: What are you doing?

A: Now, I've pulled up to a place in Beverly Hills and I'm putting on lipstick, because I'm late for a rehearsal. (Someone opens her car door.) Excuse me, but I'm right in the middle of a interview. Hello? (The phone goes dead. Ms. Van Ark calls back the next day, entirely apologetic, but still using her car phone.)

Q: You just started directing. What's one thing you would never want an actor to do?

A: Not know their lines.

Q: Would you yell at them?

A: Never. When you yell at actors -- and some directors have done this with me -- you shut them down. (Static breaks through.) Oh my God, is this phone going out again?

Q: Hey, what's that squeaking noise?

A: Oh hell, I don't know. I'm in the back seat this time . . . and I'm not doing what you're thinking. But as I was saying about directing, well, it's been so draining for me. I've run 12 marathons, and I've never been this tired.

Q: When you finish running your marathons, have you ever gotten really sick?

A: Never, never, never. Because you know what? Just like the major things in life, running is more mental than physical.

Q: Did you ever get "runner's high"?

A: I did once. I was running with my agent in Palm Springs, and we were running in sync with great strides, and I got high. I felt I could go forever. What it is is that your whole body -- your mind, your body -- is working as a unit. And you get this feeling of incredible, effortless power.

Q: Do you believe what has been printed, that Kim Basinger washes her hair only with Evian water?

A: I don't know, but I read that and said to myself, "Wow, what a great idea."

Q: You're kidding. You'd really do that?

A: Sure, it's a great idea for blondes. See, blond hair is really difficult to get the right color, because it has so many shades in it, and tap water does dull the finish. So I really want to try this Evian thing. That's a fabulous idea.

Q: Why do you think "Knots Landing" has thrived, when all the other prime-time soap operas were canceled?

A: Because we don't insult our audience. I mean, "Dynasty" did crazy, way-out, awful stories sometimes. I shouldn't say awful, because who in the hell do I think I am? And then Bobby's dream shower thing on "Dallas," the audience thought, "Who do you think we are, morons?" We have never pandered to our audience, or talked down to them, and they have kept with us for that reason.

Q: As an actress in her 40s, what do you think about plastic surgery in Hollywood, which almost seems to go with the territory.

A: Oh, I don't think it's just Hollywood. It's like when people ask me about divorce and marriage in Hollywood. What, you think couples in the Midwest don't split up? But we're in the middle of a huge worshiping of youth in this country, where being thin and young and perfect is almost mandatory, or else you're thought less of. American society is very exterior-conscious, but I tell you, I know just as many men who are getting tucked. It's an epidemic.

Q: Would you ever get anything done?

A: Sure, if I looked in the mirror and got scared over what I saw. There was an interesting quote in a recent TV Guide that said, "Actors on television are scrutinized from 6 in the morning till they wrap at 7 at night." And that's true -- by the makeup man, producers, even the crew. They can't look at you and judge you enough. It's very hard to deal with that pressure.

Q: So what do you want to redo?

A: Well, right now, my knees.

Q: What, do you have fat knees?

A: No, I'm kidding. I should probably just grit my teeth and have my whole body overhauled! What the hell.

Q: If you were a lawn, would you be downtrodden or well-manicured?

A: I'd be really green, I know that. I wouldn't be downtrodden, no, but I wouldn't be golf-course perfect, either. I think of myself as grass now, and I say to myself, "Lush, green, strong, no fungus problems."

Q: Do you think vegetarians eat animal crackers?

A: (Confused pause.) What drug are you on? Of course they do. Because, sadly enough, they don't manufacture salad crackers, and vegetarians have got to have some fun, too. I am not a vegetarian, but I live on grapes.

Q: Grapes are 98 percent water, you know.

A: I know. That's the best thing a woman can eat. That's the big new food. And I also eat watermelon a lot for the same reasons. Basically, I exist on water foods.

Q: If your life were a soap opera, what would the cliffhanger be?

A: I'd be in a department store, and they would have run out of mascara, and I'd be having a nervous breakdown as the camera came in for a close-up. There's no bigger hell on earth for a woman like myself than being deprived of eye-makeup. Oh shoot, there goes the phone again. Hello?

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