The postman knew she was a star, he just didn't know which one. "Hey," he said, as Genie Francis flung open the door of her Manhattan apartment, "aren't you the one from All My Children?" "No," she said politely. "General Hospital."

"Yeah, right," he said, asking for her autograph "for my sister." As he turned to leave he took another hard stare. "But you were on All My Children, right?" "No," she sighed. "It really was General Hospital."

How soon they forget. As Laura Baldwin on TV's No. 1 daytime soap, her much ballyhooed wedding two years ago to Luke Spencer (Anthony Geary) drew the largest daytime audience in history. (A guest appearance by Elizabeth Taylor didn't hurt.) Then, in December 1981, after five years on the show, Francis quit, and Laura disappeared onto a pier in a dense fog, leaving behind a weepy-eyed Luke (joined by ratings-conscious ABC execs). Her soggy boot washed up ashore weeks later. Now, after an unsuccessful journey into prime time with the soapy Bare Essence, Francis has reemerged from the fog for a guest stint that will seal Luke and Laura's fate. "They never really gave me an exit," she says. "It was unfair to me and unfair to the fans."

So far, the homecoming has been peachy. "It's like visiting my childhood," says Genie, 21, who was only 14 when she joined the show. Enthuses co-star Geary: "It's wonderful to see her. Genie and I had such a connection. Our hearts, minds and imaginations seem to meet in outer space."

Back on earth, Genie scoffs at talk that her prime-time plummet forced her back to her daytime roots. "I chose to come back," she says. "It's not like I'm crawling back on my knees, saying, 'Please give me a job.' " Although producer Gloria Monty wanted Francis for a three-month encore, Genie would only agree to six weeks. "I'm coming back a bigger star than I was, in terms of the industry and what I've achieved."

The industry might not be so quick to agree. Although the CBS high-gloss Bare Essence miniseries, in which she played a vulnerable perfume tycoon, got very good ratings ("It was good sleazy fun. We never intended it to be Hill Street Blues"), last season's follow-up series on NBC was dumped after a mere nine shows. Even though this "first stumble" wounded her ego, Genie is philosophical about the demise of the show. "I don't think one failed series is going to make or break my career," she says.

During her previous daytime soap career, Francis frequently complained that the rigors of GH cheated her out of a normal adolescence (although a reported $150,000 annual salary eased the sting somewhat). Since then, she has used her free time to visit Australia and Hawaii, work with autistic children near her Sherman Oaks, Calif. condo and pursue simple pleasures such as "going on a picnic—all the things that people take for granted." What she seldom does is watch General Hospital. "I turned it on a couple of times and they were still going, 'Where's Laura?' I said forget it, and turned it off," she says, laughing.

She's also been looking for work, but remains picky about what roles she will and won't do ("I won't be a decoration," she insists). Last July, tired of "waiting for the phone to ring" in Los Angeles, Genie moved to New York to study acting and pursue stage work, at least until a meaty feature role comes her way. "I'm looking for something more serious now so I can show what I've learned," she says. (Books by acting maestro Konstantin Stanislavsky are scattered about her East Side apartment, where she lives alone.) She is also working on an image overhaul: from teen soap queen to sultry sophisticate, so that industry execs won't think of her as "that little blond cookie from the soaps."

Her social life has picked up as well. Since checking out of General Hospital, "I mix more, I have a much broader circle of friends." Except for a little-known, yearlong romance with former GH co-star Kin Shriner, she seldom dated during her years on GH. "I was more naive than most girls my age," she says, however improbably. She's not dating anybody special now, mainly because some men are intimidated by her success. "They feel like I'm untouchable and spoiled," she complains. "I'm not, you know." Still, young studs need not apply. She likes her men smart ("people I can learn from") and older (30 is her limit).

Although she has no regrets about leaving General Hospital, Genie is happily savoring the limelight again. "Before, I was so caught up in the whirlwind, I didn't have the opportunity to enjoy what was happening," she says. "I never realized what a big thing I was."

Or how many big questions she left unanswered: Will Luke rekindle his love for Laura? Does Laura love Luke, or has she returned merely to reclaim her boot? Is it true that Liz Taylor was seen stashing cake into her purse after the wedding? Tune in tomorrow.