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A Killer Story : Texas Cheerleader Tale and TV Movie: A Match Made in Network Heaven

November 08, 1992|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the Texas Cheerleader Mom Case grabbed headlines last year, Lesley Ann Warren--like a lot of other people--tried to option the rights.

"I thought it was an incredibly fascinating story," said Warren.

"It was so David Lynch to me in terms of looking at the American dream gone black. I couldn't understand, and actually even now, it is very difficult for me to fully grasp (the) hole in one's psyche which allows them to make that leap from being driven and competitive and envious to willing to do, in fact, anything, to get what you want."

It turned out ABC and HBO won the rights. But as luck would have it, Warren was offered the starring role of Wanda Webb Halloway in ABC's "Willing to Kill: The Texas Cheerleader Story," airing Sunday. (HBO's movie, which will take a satiric look at the incident, is scheduled to air early next year.)

Halloway, a thrice-married mother in the small Texas town of Channelview, tried to hire a hit man to murder her good friend Verna Heath (played by Tess Harper). Halloway believed Heath's daughter, Amber, then 13, would be too distraught to try out for the cheerleading squad, thus paving the way for her own 13-year-old Shanna to make it.

Halloway was sentenced to 15 years in jail after her conviction, although the judge threw out the case because of problems with a juror and ordered a retrial. But the state of Texas is appealing the judge's verdict, asking that the sentence be upheld.

Harper ("Tender Mercies," "Crimes of the Heart") said she initially had a smug reaction to Halloway's story until she read the script. "Once you realize there are real people involved in this. ... I started to think about instant fame, the 15 minutes of fame Andy Warhol talks about and how that disrupts someone's life and also the nature of competitiveness in this country."

As actresses, both Harper and Warren said they know a lot about competition. "All of us wish sometimes that the competition would disappear," Harper said.

"It is a big part of the field I have chosen to play in and a part of my own nature," Warren said. "Otherwise, I wouldn't be doing this in the first place."

But these days, Harper said, competitiveness is not about doing the best you can do, "it is about annihilating the competition. It is not the best you can be; it is to make sure the other guy is pulverized."

Though neither women met their real-life counterparts, both watched tapes of their appearances on "Hard Copy" and various talk shows.

Warren said Halloway's burning ambition for her daughter was a result of her upbringing in a strict Southern Baptist home.

"Her father literally said cheerleaders are like whores," Warren said. "She was very repressed and very suppressed. She was brought up in a house of extreme and rigid obedience. In that town and pretty much in Texas, cheerleader girls and the football playing boys are the royalty of the town and they are the ones like our movie stars. That is the goal to aspire to. So Wanda grew up with nothing and felt invisible and wanted her daughter to become the most visible."

Heath, Harper learned, went to the University of Houston on a twirling scholarship. "There are three generations of women in that family who are competitors in twirling, tap and Little Miss contests," she said. "Though she never admits it herself, (Heath) also wants to have the psychological edge at all times."

Both of the daughters are A students. "They are not complete airheads," Harper said. "But they are conditioned to believe if they are not soft and pretty, if they are not socially acceptable, their life is meaningless. What you see when you look at the pictures of these mothers and daughters is a 16 and a thirtysomething-year-old dressed identically."

Warren said she felt there was some kind of a "weird transference" between Halloway and her daughter. "The daughter is made in the mother's vision and the daughter becomes the winning version of what the mother wasn't," Warren said. "There is this tremendous co-dependence between the mother and daughter."

Halloway, Warren said, loves her daughter more than anything on Earth "and wanted what she felt was best and would do anything for her to have it. So it was coming out of this incredible love. But you look a bit deeper, there are so many empty spaces in Wanda's soul that need to be filled by her daughter living this dream out."

According to Warren and Harper, life is status quo in Channelview, where Holloway is free on bail.

"The two daughters are still to this day best friends," Harper said. "They are in the same class in the same high school and they live around the corner from each other."

"As soon as (Halloway's) bail was set, she was back in the high school auditorium," Warren said. "Whatever shame or feeling she had, she never showed. She continues to participate in her daughter's life as if none of this happened."

"Willing to Kill: The Texas Cheerleader Story" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on ABC.

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