BURBANK, Calif. - John Black - the mysterious, amnesia-prone spy - has been shot, stabbed, strangled, downed in a plane crash, ejected from a submarine, trapped in a gas chamber, stalked by a serial killer and, of course, attacked by Satan.

It's been the role of a lifetime for actor Drake Hogestyn. Essentially, it's been his only role since he arrived on "Days of Our Lives" 23 years ago.

Now, NBC's longest-running soap opera has been hit hard by the recession and, alas, it's time for John Black to die again ... maybe.

"I've gone through a life of the soap opera," said Hogestyn, 55, as he flipped through scripts and phone messages at his manager's office. "Now I'm ready for something different."

Letting go is tough. John Black was modeled after Ro-bert Ludlum's super-spy Jason Bourne. Hogestyn admits a certain connection with the character.

"For years, my thoughts were his thoughts," he said.

He has caught himself giving John Black's signature look - arching one dark eyebrow, eyes narrowing - to store clerks and talking to his fan-club staff as if he's on the show.

"It has to stop," he said.

The actor's voice, raspy from a cold, strained over the steady ring of phones at Hines & Hunt Entertainment. He had dropped by his manager's office after spending a few hours pulling weeds and trimming hedges at his house.

Hogestyn leaned against his manager's chair, thumbed through the paperwork and grinned.

"This looks great," Hogestyn told his manager as he tucked the papers into his satchel.

The actor feels confident about the future, a surprise considering his only other significant role was playing the brother who didn't sing or dance in the early 1980s TV musical series "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers."

But then the comeback is a John Black specialty.

The character first appeared in 1985 as an amnesiac known only as "the Pawn." After a variety of trysts, two children, one grandchild and numerous near-death experiences, he was brought down by the economy.

In 2006, Hogestyn remembered, "they shot John Black, put him in a coma, saved some money."

Black was awakened in 2007 but was soon run over by a car and killed. After fans boycotted the show, he made a comeback in 2008 with the explanation that his archenemy had stolen his body, revived him and held him prisoner.

But by late summer, Hogestyn knew Black's return would be short-lived. The executive producer who brought him back was fired. Actors' salaries were being slashed. Black had fewer scenes.

Hogestyn was told Nov. 4 that it was over. Co-star Deidre Hall got a similar call. Her character, Dr. Marlena Evans, Black's longtime paramour, was out after 33 years.

It was a bittersweet moment.

"There's an old expression: I could have been an actor, then I got a soap opera," Hogestyn said.

"It stopped being about me. It stopped being about me going out for film. It stopped being about me pursuing anything that I wanted to do - what my dreams were as an actor," said the father of four. "My mission was to provide for these little birds in the nest. ... I think that's why I kept the character alive for so long."

Now, he said, "I have taken a couple steps back to breathe. It's always been the show, the show. ... Now, I can be selfish if I want."

A commercial agency re-cently signed him, and several film producers have expressed interest. He's writing a book about eating healthy and staying fit, and he hopes to teach stressed-out executives how to get through these tough times without dropping dead from a heart attack.

Recently, Hogestyn's manager called and asked if he wanted to audition for a Viagra commercial. Why not?

He often reminds himself of his own advice: "Don't take it personally. Patience. Persever-ance. Belief that you are the best thing since sliced bread."

And, remember, no matter how bad things seem, there's always a chance for a comeback.

On Jan. 23, John Black left the Salem of "Days of Our Lives" a broken man. He was paralyzed by a toxic drug. A clinic in Switzerland held his only chance for survival.

Just before the ever-devoted Marlena wheeled him off to the airport, the couple said their marriage vows - for the fifth time - in a hospital bedside ceremony.

"I don't think anything's going to tear us apart again," John Black said. "But then again, that's covered under the 'till death do us part' part."

Marlena, eyes filling with tears, clung to his hand. "And even then," she whispered.

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