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For Deidre Hall, many days of her life have been spent filming Days of Our Lives.

On Friday, who has played Dr. Marlena Evans on the soap since 1976, celebrated her 5,000th episode of the daytime soap.

“It’s a big moment for me,” Hall exclusively tells PEOPLE. “I said to my agent, ‘I want a regular job. I want a home.’ Days happened and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh.’ It’s the family I always wanted.”

Hall left Days in 1987 to pursue her role on Our House, but returned after the NBC sitcom got canceled the next year. “My attorney was a friend of [soap star] Tom Langan’s and I said, ‘Gosh, it’d be nice to go back to Days,'” Hall confesses. “He said, ‘I’ll make a call.’ And it was done.”

Hall names working with twin sister Andrea on the show from 1997-80, and again from 2000-01, her favorite plotline so far — one which she actually manifested by telling a writer about it.’

“Ann Marcus, who had been interviewing a lot of the primary actors on the show, one of her questions was, ‘What’s the storyline you’d like to do that you’ve never done?’ Now, how genius is that? And I said, ‘Gosh, maybe I’d like to work with my twin sister,'” Hall recalls.

Andrea, a special education teacher in Tallahassee at the time, flew out to L.A. and lived with her sister while she worked on the show. The actress worried about her twin’s acting chops — especially when it came to a scene that required Andrea to fake cry — but Andrea ending up impressing the star.

“I was so panicked for her,” Hall recalls. “I stood way out of her sight line and I was watching the scenes and she began to cry. As she came off, and I said, ‘That was spectacular. How did you do that?’ And she said, ‘Well, I don’t know. I’ve watched you do it for years. How hard could it be?'”

Hall says her sister eventually paid off her college loans with the money she made working on Days. “Working with her, living with her, paying off her college loan, just having that time together was spectacular,” Hall notes.

Hall will also never forget another iconic moment: when Marlena burned down a church — for a special reason.

“One of my kids was born on the night that I burned down the church,” Hall says of her oldest son David, born via surrogate in 1992. “And I’d gotten a call from [my surrogate] Robin saying, ‘I think I’m going to go to the hospital.’ I said, ‘We’ve got to burn this church. I’ve got a baby on the way.’ I drove to the hospital in flame retardant clothes. And then, within hours, there was a baby in my arms.”

Another story arch Hall enjoyed: Marlena being possessed by Satan for months starting in late 1994. “The possession storyline is obviously going to be on my tombstone,” Hall says.

Marlena has come back from the dead countless times over the years, but “like my marriages, I have not kept track,” quips Hall, who has been married four times.

She thinks Marlena and John Black’s relationship will stay strong, though. “We’re the couple that teaches you that people stay together through thick and thin, and they stay loving, and they stay sensual and sexual, and that’s worth fighting for,” Hall says.

The mom of two appreciates how fans have always been along for the journey: “They’re able to suspend the disbelief long enough to really sink into the story.”

Hall also acknowledges how die-hard soap fans can be — “they just come and stand in my front yard,” she says — and recalls how she formed a special relationship with one devoted Days viewer.

“When I was on the show the first two or three years, we got fan mail and I got a letter from a man in Chester, Pennsylvania who wrote to me and said, ‘I was walking past a TV and Days was on, and I stopped dead in my tracks because you look exactly like my late wife,'” Hall says.

Hall and this fan, who was 96 years old at the time, started writing each other letters back and forth. And then, while visiting Philadelphia, Hall decided to visit him.

“I got to his house and we sat on the front porch and just talked and talked,” she says. “He was an artist that had done every known style of watercolor and charcoals and oils. We stayed in touch and we talked three or four times a month.”

The Wisconsin native planned to visit him again and checked in the day before her trip when he told her, “I’m feeling kind of funny.” The next day, Hall received word from his son that he had died.

“I have all of his letters; I’ve got a number of his charcoals and illustrations that hang in my home that are just one of my great treasures,” Hall says. “The richness of that friendship up until the day before he died, just the closest.”

Interactions like that make being on Days, which moved to Peacock from NBC last year, for a whopping 5,000 episodes feel like “more than the work” to Hall.

“It’s all a group effort,” she says. “It’s everybody pulling in the same direction at the same time. We get to be on camera, so we get a little more of that light shining on us, but everybody works just as hard and supports each other. I love the people. I love the production. I love the sense of welcome. It’s such an absolute joy. It’s been a home.”