Silent Struggle

updated 08/14/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/14/2000 01:00AM

Seven years ago, when Maurice Benard first began playing mercurial gangster Sonny Corinthos on ABC's General Hospital, he found himself eerily becoming the character. "There were times when I'd come home and I'd be speaking his lines," recalls Benard. "I couldn't shake him."

"He came to me after work one day," says his wife, Paula, 31, joining Benard, 37, in the airy chalet-style house near L.A. they share with their daughters Cailey, 5, and Cassidy, 16 months, "and he was very sad because he thought he was emotionally abusing the actress playing his girlfriend—because Sonny was mistreating her."

This wasn't a case of a Method actor going overboard. Since his early 20s, Benard has suffered from manic depression for bipolar disorder), a mental illness afflicting some 2.5 million adult Americans who experience extreme mood swings ranging from unbridled elation to suicidal despair. Like many other sufferers, Benard was able to control his disease with daily doses of the mood-stabilizing drug lithium as well as weekly sessions with a psychiatrist. Yet in 1991, after landing the plum role of Desi Arnaz in a TV-movie bio, he took himself off the pills. "I was feeling good," he explains. "It was like, 'I don't need this.' It was stupid."

In 1993, three weeks after checking into General Hospital, Benard had a breakdown. "It was the high of starting the show that triggered it," says Paula, a former preschool teacher who met Benard in 1986 and married him four years later. "And anxiety from the intensity of the work." One night, she says, "he threatened to kill me. It was terrifying." Slipping out of the house, she phoned his psychiatrist and got him to prescribe a tranquilizer. "Even in that state, [I knew] Maurice would take it. If he hadn't, I probably would have had to call the police."

Since that frightful night, Benard has remained on lithium and suffered no further breakdowns. "Now I can leave Sonny in the dressing room," he says. Still, the role has earned him two Daytime Emmy nominations and two Soap Opera Digest Awards. Accepting the second last March, Benard ended his speech, "And to everybody who is manic-depressive, don't give up." Today he explains, "It just blurted out. The interesting thing is that some people [in the audience] laughed. Maybe they thought I was speaking about Sonny. They didn't know my history."

Born Mauricio Morales, the younger of two sons of Humberto, 63, a Nicaraguan-born bakery superintendent, and Martha, also 63, a bank employee from El Salvador, he grew up in Martinez, Calif., around 40 miles from San Francisco. Following a failed attempt at modeling (at 5'9", "I'm way too short"), he began acting in local plays, using his favorite aunt's surname.

Then in 1985, at age 22 and still living at home with his parents, Benard suffered his first breakdown. "In front of his father and me he started crying," says Martha. "I think I told my dad I was the devil," says Benard. His parents checked him into a psychiatric hospital, but his illness remained undiagnosed until a few months later, when a friend put him on to Charles A. Noonan, a Concord, Calif., psychiatrist. "Dr. Noonan said, 'You're manic-depressive and I'm going to put you on lithium,' " recalls Benard. "He pretty much saved me."

Benard's acting career promptly blossomed. In 1987 All My Children cast him as tough kid Nico Kelly. Taking on GH's Sonny in 1993, "he was absolutely phenomenal," says director Shelley Curtis. "It never occurred to me he was manic-depressive." Even after his breakdown, "I thought he was having a panic attack," says Curtis, who coaxed him back to work. "He never missed any days. That's his professionalism."

"He stays on lithium all the time," says Paula. "I've had no side effects, thank God," he says. "I hear that some people have weight gain, kidney problems. I haven't had any." Even so, says his wife, "he's had situations where I've asked him to calm down. He gets that grandiose feeling. If I say, 'Honey, you're getting a little carried away,' then he steps back. He adjusts."

And what about the troubling scientific evidence that bipolar disorder can be inherited? "I think about my kids getting it," says Benard. "But because of what we've been through, we should be able to see the signs quicker." He is also acutely aware, he says, of "how my moods might affect my kids. Cailey can pick up on them. I'm very conscious of that. So I make that extra effort never to yell and to keep cool. At some point," he says, "I'll tell them about it, when they are old enough to understand."

Michael A. Lipton
John Hannah in Los Angeles

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