The time has come, "One Tree Hill" fans. Next Wednesday's episode features a return appearance from Chad Michael Murray, who left the series after Season 6 when contract negotiations with the studio came to a standstill. Though Murray has been approached about a return before, it wasn't until the series' cancellation was announced that he agreed to come back for this episode.
"We tried to do it the last couple seasons, but I don't think Chad was ready to do it," executive producer Mark Schwahn tells Zap2it. "It came down to him, and there was some back-and-forth, but it didn't feel like everybody was willing to play nice. So this season, we reached out again, and I think he was just in a better place. He saw that it was the end of the series and he knows that the show was good to him and he was good for the show. When you know that these are the last episodes, it makes it easier to get a deal done, so the business of all of it was a lot easier."
That said, any old drama immediately evaporated when Murray arrived on set. "I hear Chad enjoyed his time back in Wilmington with the crew and the cast, and I hear they enjoyed him. Everybody said nice things. Everyone said he was on his best behavior," adds Schwahn. "I think when you have time away from anything, it allows your perspective to shift and mature, and I think that was probably the case with Chad."
We visited Murray on the Wilmington, NC set of the show in September. After we watched him film some emotional scenes as Lucas, he sat down with us and admitted that he initially hadn't planned to return. "It never really crossed my mind, to be honest," he says. "I left the show and took a year off. I went out into the woods and just traveled. It was incredible. Then I came back and found this new love for what we do, this art, and I finished my book. So it never really dawned on me, but then the opportunity came across, and I knew how important it was to these fans, who are everything to the show. And that was it."
He says that he wasn't nervous about coming back to Wilmington and returning to the cast and crew that he worked with for so many years. "I filled my Xanax prescription. Big pills, I swear," he jokes, then waves a hand. "No, absolutely not. I've got so many great friends here. I've worked with this crew multiple times. We shot 'Dawson's Creek' together and we shot this together. So it was cool to come back, because all my buddies are here."
Lucas has been missing in action for quite a while, even though Haley (Bethany Joy Galeotti) has been dutifully writing him letters and keeping him up to date on her mercurial family life. When asked whether Lucas ever answered said letters, Murray admits that he'd always figured that he did -- but the script for the return episode says otherwise. "I decided that yes, he did, but we discover here that I haven't. So I guess I haven't," he says.
While Lucas was still on the show, one of the most important and consistent relationships in his life was with his best friend Haley, so it's only appropriate that his return to the show is about being a good friend to her, even though he hasn't been the best pen pal. The majority of Murray's screen time is with Galeotti. She says it was "great" to work with him again.
"I love Chad. He's also kind of like my dips*** little brother," she says, grinning. "I say that lovingly."
The sentiment is shared. Well, at least the love part. "I love Joy. She's so sweet. I've kept close with her over the years. I adore her, and every time I'm here we grab food. She's just so f***ing gifted," he says emphatically. "Excuse my language -- when you say someone's good and how much talent they really truly possess, sometimes an expletive is the only way to say it. I'm really, really, really glad to be working her, and I told her that -- straight up front."
We've heard a bit of backlash from fans who were disappointed to learn that Lucas wouldn't reunite with Brooke (Sophia Bush), but Bush assures us that it wasn't the result of any off-screen tensions. "When I got the script and saw that Lucas was back, I called Mark," she tells us, "and I told him that if he wanted to write scenes where the whole gang gets together at Haley's house and talks about how they're going to find Nathan, then he should write that. I've never asked not to work with any former cast mates, and I'm certainly not going to start now, in the final season. This show is too important to me, and these characters are too important to me, and the fans are too important to me."
Their paths don't cross, ultimately, because while Haley manages the Nathan situation, Brooke has a harrowing storyline of her own as Xavier, the criminal who assaulted her in Season 6, nears a potential prison release. "Brooke is notified that he is up for parole and goes to see him," Schwahn says. "She has to make a decision about whether or not she really believes he's changed or not, whether he's rehabilitated."
As for Peyton's (Hilarie Burton) whereabouts, Schwahn tells us that they did reach out to her and invite her to return with Murray, but she declined. "We would have liked to include Hilarie as well but she has a [son] now, and she has a job, and she's doing well and she just felt like her free time away from work she wanted to spend with her [son], which is a completely plausible, nice answer," he says.
Murray says that while Lucas and Peyton are still together and raising their daughter, Sawyer, few hints are dropped about Peyton's life during the episode. "I don't want to give you all the spoilers, but no, I don't think we find anything out."
Though you won't see Lucas and Julian together on-screen, Murray did work with Austin Nichols, who directed the episode. "He was great, and I was really happy with everything he did, and I think the episode's going to be excellent," Nichols says, noting that Murray's comfort with the crew helped things run smoothly.
Murray has fond words for Nichols as well. In fact, his sentiments toward all his former cast mates were rather warm -- when he asked which hotel we stayed at while in Wilmington, he immediately began reminiscing about the first season, when he and co-star James Lafferty lived in the suites there.
"It was fun. We were all just a bunch of goofy kids. James and I used to light fireworks off the balcony -- stupid stuff. But it's nice to see that everyone has grown up and they're on to new things. Austin's been directing and he did such a great job with this episode. He fits in that chair so well, he really does. And Jackson is just adorable. He hasn't grown, but he's adorable. Joy's a mom and her baby's beautiful. It was nice to be back."
Catch his return on Wednesday, Feb. 22 at 8 p.m. EST. In the meantime, stay tuned to Zap2it for more from Chad Michael Murray.