It seemed, at long last, that ABC's daytime phenomenon, General Hospital, had found a miracle cure for the soap opera blues—that nagging feeling, epidemic among soap stars, that they just don't get no respect from their pricey prime-time peers. GH, after all, reaps the highest daytime ratings in TV history (14 million addicts). It earns more than $50 million a year in profits (double that of nighttime's costlier-to-produce Dallas). And in next week's wedding of erstwhile rapist Luke Spencer (Anthony Geary) and smitten victim Laura Baldwin (Genie Francis), it boasts the most ballyhooed TV event since J.R. ate lead.
Yet something, that ineffable something, was missing. Like a king without a crown or a rock star without Britt Ekland, the show lacked that final fillip that signaled true arrival. That is no longer the case, for beginning this week Elizabeth Taylor, dripping with her diamonds and invaluable Hollywood glitter, stops by to appear in five episodes of her favorite soap. "People still see daytime television as the bastard of the industry, but the fact that Elizabeth Taylor chose to come here because she's a fan must mean we're doing something right," says Geary. "It validated General Hospital for me."
"I'm wild about that show," explains Taylor, who donated her $2,000 paycheck to two Virginia hospitals that once treated her. "Someone from General Hospital came to see me when I was doing The Little Foxes in New York, and I agreed to do the soap when I got to L.A."
Not surprisingly, her visit (reminiscent of Joan Crawford's 1968 Secret Storm fling recounted in Mommie Dearest) called for some Taylor-made perks. Producer Gloria Monty (interestingly, she directed Crawford's Storm episodes) vacated her own office—the largest in the off-Sunset Blvd. complex where GH is taped—and evicted a consultant to make room for Liz. Contrary to reports, Monty denies repainting Liz's dressing room to match her violet eyes, but the producer did irritate some actors' union members by making $109.25-per-day extras of Taylor's son and daughter-in-law, Christopher and Aileen Wilding, and her publicist, makeup man and hairdresser.
But Monty also made stipulations. Most notably, she insisted that Liz could not play herself, but only a specially created character—Helena Cassadine, the rich widow of a mad scientist who had schemed in a typically implausible recent plot to freeze GH's Port Charles hometown. Taylor's character comes on sweet—she donates millions to General Hospital to atone for her husband's evildoing—but she winds up sinister, casting a curse on Laura and Luke, whose wedding is further blemished when a mystery guest (tune in next week!) tries to punch out Luke during the reception. Says Liz of her two-day spree on the soap opera set: "I had a ball."
By the cast's accounts, she behaved like an angel during the shooting. When Chris (Dr. Rick Webber) Robinson jokingly insisted on a special camera angle, she good-naturedly spun his back to the lens and gibed, "If you want your best side showing, try this." She apologetically dubbed herself "Madame Flub" after repeatedly mispronouncing her character's name and, except for noting that things were different at MGM, accommodated herself to GH's daunting shooting pace.
"She worked hard and with humor. She wasn't tap-dancing," says Geary. "She hugged each member of the cast, she knew people's names. She treated me like a total peer—not like a clown or a freak."
Quite obviously the genre's leading man is sensitive about his standing. "In the last three years," Geary says, "I have given my life to this show—physically, emotionally, spiritually. The work is harder than on prime-time TV. Genie and I have carried as much as 60 pages of dialogue a day, four or five days a week. No nighttime show, no film makes those demands." As a result, Geary notes, he has no personal life—"There is really nothing going on—nothing." Compensations include an estimated salary of $200,000 and an almost jaunty self-assurance. "One critic recently said I had thin lips, a weak chin, a sallow complexion and a receding hairline," laughs Geary. "Hey, if someone thinks that's sexy, don't take it out on me. I didn't try to be a sex symbol, folks—it came with the dinner." He anticipates that Luke and Laura's long-delayed nuptials will lead to more subtle—and plausible—character development. "After the sweatiest honeymoon on record," says Geary, "maybe other sides of our relationship can emerge."
So, he hopes, will other sides of Tony Geary, who, ominously for General Hospital, plans to depart when his contract expires at the end of 1982. "This is not going to be my career," he says. "But I will never again work without trying to achieve the dedication I feel here. It's ruined me." But not his self-confidence. "I'm a fine actor, I have abilities to communicate that are gifts," assesses Geary. "There is no other reason for me to walk this earth."
Luke's Laura, however, may be walking for other reasons. Genie Francis will quit when her contract expires next month unless a way can be found to allow her time off for college and a social life. "It isn't that I don't love the show," she says, "but I'm 19, I've been on since I was 14, and I'm absolutely exhausted." Francis repeats Geary's workaholic tale, with a twist. "You come in early in the morning, straight out of the shower, work on the script, get your hair done at lunch, cram lines, then tape," says Genie. "I've never had time for boyfriends. I hardly have time for girlfriends. There's my roommate, and another girl from junior high I've stayed in touch with, and that's it. My closest friends are here." And even they weren't always friendly. "I spent some very lonely years on the show," says Genie, who for a long time was a decade younger than any of her co-stars. "If they were going to talk about sex in the makeup room, I was told to leave. It wasn't until I was 18 that I was accepted." The result, she says, is that "I'm unsure of how old I am; the last school I attended was Millikan Junior High in Sherman Oaks. [She was tutored on the set until she won a high school diploma at 16.] I picture myself carrying books around school, but then here I am handling finances [a salary reportedly more than $100,000], publicity and a career." Genie, who wants to attend Cal State Northridge next spring, says, "I know all about Genie the actress; maybe it's time to find out about Genie the human being."
If Francis' future is up in the air, so may be General Hospital's. Stuart (Dr. Alan Quartermaine) Damon and other cast members are quick to assert that the show "isn't just two people—other elements, other characters make it a success. There's Rick [Dr. Noah Drake] Springfield for the teenagers, Tony for slightly older girls, Chris Robinson for the more staid types and John [Dr. Steve Hardy] Beradino for the older ladies," says Damon. "I get fan mail from girls in their 20s and 30s—and that's how I like 'em." Not surprisingly, Beradino, 64, suggests Luke's and Laura's demise might even be welcomed by "some of the cast members who feel neglected." Not least among them may be Beradino, who has been with GH all its 18 years and who only half jokingly grumbles that the show has been turned over to young "freaks, creeps, pimps and hookers."
In the end, General Hospital's future rests with Gloria Monty, 50ish, the diminutive (5'2") producer who inherited a stale soap five years ago and single-handedly reconstructed the face of daytime TV. "A wonderfully bossy little lady," opines Denise (Dr. Lesley Webber) Alexander. Geary offers: "It's no accident that everyone calls her 'Mother,' but you wouldn't call her 'Mom.' " Ex-head writer Patricia Falken Smith and her team of six other scribes angrily quit the show in August after repeated battles with Monty and jumped to NBC's Days of Our Lives. "Gloria's a genius—who runs a gestapo operation," snipes Falken Smith, who sees alienation developing among cast and crew. "What has gone up has got to come down."
Monty admits that her actors don't "sit around and drink coffee" and that she scrutinizes GH "to the last detail," but she concedes nothing. Skeptics predicted her series had peaked in 1979, she points out—before Luke and Laura. "They said we couldn't top ourselves then, and we did," says Monty. "Anything's possible."