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'One Tree Hill' says goodbye

About to be in television's rearview mirror: the town of Tree Hill, N.C.

For proof of what compelling characters, smart writing and solid acting can do, witness the staying power of "One Tree Hill" over nine seasons. Without a "name" cast -- though Moira Kelly and Craig Sheffer had some movie fame, and Barry Corbin was known from the series "Northern Exposure" -- the show premiered quietly on a network that no longer exists (the WB) and ultimately would last almost a decade thanks largely to the devoted fan base it built.

"One Tree Hill" ends its run at 8 p.m. today on the CW with a two-hour event -- a retrospective followed by the actual final episode -- that's likely to be as emotional for its loyal audience as it was for its cast and crew when filming wrapped late last year. The fact that production finished months ago is allowing for a relatively quick DVD release of the entire final season, set for Tuesday.

"It's hard to see photos from the set and think, 'I'm never going to be in a room with all the same people again,' " says actress Bethany Joy Lenz, who was Bethany Joy Galeotti during her series-spanning role as young wife, mother and sometimes music star Haley James Scott. Now divorcing, she adds, "I'm sure I'll go back to Wilmington (N.C., where the show was made) and work with some of those guys again, but not in that particular combination."

Foremost among the makers of "One Tree Hill" has been creator and executive producer Mark Schwahn, who concedes, "Nine years was more than we expected, but it's been a wonderful run for us. Maybe two of the nine seasons we felt fairly secure we were coming back; the other years, when we did cliffhangers, I just felt instinctually that we were coming back, and we took that risk."

For Haley, much of the final round of "One Tree Hill" meant fretting about her missing husband, Nathan (James Lafferty), kidnapped after an overseas trip. (Clarence native Chad Michael Murray played his brother for many years, and returned to the show briefly earlier this season.)

Lenz also has directed three episodes and performed in a concert tour inspired by the series.

"I am eternally grateful to Mark and Joe (Davola, another 'One Tree Hill' executive producer) for sending us out on that," she reflects. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, something I actually thought I wanted to pursue at one point. And I realized, 'I really don't like being on the road!' It fulfilled whatever I needed to fulfill, then I didn't need it anymore." Lenz still records and does occasional shows with her partner in the duo Everly, longtime friend Amber Sweeney.

Likening himself to the "One Tree Hill" character Mouth (played by Lee Norris), Schwahn put much of his own background into the series. He deems reaching the finale "bittersweet, but I always had a feel for the tone of the ending. I didn't know specifically what it would be until we got into the season and started breaking stories; those inform where you're going to go, and I think where we've ended up is really satisfying and wonderful."

At least for now, "One Tree Hill" repeats will remain on cable network SoapNet's schedule. That's another bonus for Schwahn.

"There aren't a lot of people who go into a television season and don't really have to worry about ratings, and that's without being dismissive at all to our faithful audience. Removing even a little bit of that pressure can be really creatively fulfilling."