Award-winning soap star Benjamin Hendrickson -- who played Hal Munson, the hard-bitten police chief with a tender heart on CBS's "As the World Turns" -- shot himself in the head in an apparent suicide, police and cast members said yesterday.
The 55-year-old Long Island native, who friends said had been depressed since the death of his mother from cancer in 2003, was found dead in his Huntington home on Saturday.
Hendrickson had been filming scenes in which his TV daughter is dying -- and that may have been the final straw as he fought his own real-life depression.
It was not known if he left a note.
"He was a marvelous and gifted man," said longtime cast member Ellen Dolan, who plays Margo Hughes, a detective sidekick. "I just know him to be a wonderful man with a big heart -- we are all part of a tight family here. I am just heartbroken."
Hendrickson, who was single, had played the stolid police chief since 1985 and won a Daytime Emmy for outstanding supporting actor in 2003, around the same time his mother died after a long illness.
In his acceptance speech, the balding actor joked he always believed the award went to actors with the best hair.
But he dedicated the trophy to his mother.
"To my mom, who scrimped and saved to send me to Juilliard to study the classics -- I'm sorry," he quipped.
Hendrickson was a member of the first graduating drama class of Juilliard alongside Kevin Kline and Patti LuPone.
He also was a founder of The Acting Company with John Houseman.
But his best-known work was on the daytime soaps.
"His character was a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy, a salt-of-the-earth character and the women fell for him," said one soap source.
The veteran actor, who once appeared in Broadway's "The Elephant Man," divided his time between his Upper West Side home and his home on Long Island, where he loved to go fishing.
"Benjamin always joked that he was hired for one day. Then, before he knew it, he'd impregnated the leading lady and had to sign a contract," said executive producer Christopher Goutman. "How lucky for us and the fans we had him for 21 years."
Yesterday, during the taping of the show, there were technical difficulties that delayed production, Dolan said. "I blame it all on him," she quipped.
Some of the cast and crew had been unaware of Hendrickson's shocking suicide because of the Fourth of July holiday.
The beloved soap star had his ups and downs during his 20-year tenure with the show.
He briefly quit in 2004 over a contract dispute, but close friends said it also gave him time to mourn the passing of his mother.
Hendrickson's last appearance on the show will be July 12.