A New Dream for Genie
Coming of age on General Hospital cost Genie Francis more than she bargained for. But that was then; this is now: She's a ratings queen, has a happy marriage, a baby on the way -- and a secret wish for the future.
The red cupolaed cabin in a canyon above Hollywood is modest but cozy, the home of a "real person" as opposed to that of a star. Actress Genie Francis appears behind the screen door, dressed comfortably in a drop-waist antique dress, black tights and flats. The ends of her long blond hair are wet. It's hard not to call her Laura and to expect Luke, Laura's husband on the daytime soap General Hospital, to amble up behind her. After all, Francis became Laura in the public's mind when her character and Luke, played by Anthony Geary, had an on-screen love affair that captivated the nation in the late '70s and early '80s. Francis and Geary landed on the cover of Newsweek, and the magazine insisted that "no other soap... has inspired a devotion as widespead or as passionate." The actress's return to the show late last year after a 12-year absence reignited the frenzy, with fans hungry for ever more plotlines featuring the couple.
The reverie is broken by Francis's sniffles, something her soap character probably wouldn't suffer from. The 32-year-old actress apologizes for her runny nose: "I can't take anything for this cold because of the baby," she explains, flashing her mile wide smile and moving a hand from her protruding belly to a box of tissues. She and her Husband of 6 years, 42 year-old actor Jonathan Frakes (who plays Commander Riker on the syndicated TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation), are expecting their first child in August. The changes that baby will bring have already commenced. A "For Sale" sign is planted in the front yard next to their amusing mailbox, a replica of a cow. "We're moving into a little house in the valley that's safer and in a more family-oriented neighborhood," she explains.
The Little Gold Mine
Francis's return to General Hospital has once again spelled magic for the show's ratings. Just as LandL's romance over a decade ago made it the soap to watch, the show once again sizzles. Ratings rose 24% the week of Laura's return, and the program hovers in the #3 Nielsen spot among daytime's ten.
Francis is such a magnet, say industry insiders, because of her down to earth appeal. "Genie is an extremely accessible actress," says General Hospital producer Wendy Riche. “She takes you in and embraces you with her soul." Adds Lynn Leahy, editor in chief of Soap Opera Digest, " She's beautiful, but not intimidatingly beautiful. She's real, genuine." And then there's the unbeatable chemistry between her and costar Geary. "We have a connection I don't have with anybody else on this planet," he says. "For me the connection is almost spiritual."
A native of Englewood, New Jersey, Francis moved at age 7 with her parents and 2 brothers to L.A., where her father, Broadway stage actor Ivor Francis, pursued his dream of becoming a star. But it was his daughter who was destined for fame. At age 13 Francis decided she wanted to act and asked her father to give her junior high school photo to his agent: "My parents said, ‘Have Murray send her out on auditions. She'll get discouraged and she'll give up.' I went out on auditions and I won. And I've worked ever since."
She landed the role of mild-mannered -- and at the time seldom seen -- daughter Laura on General Hospital at 14. A year and a half later the show was doing poorly and was on the verge of being canceled when legendary and ruthless producer Gloria Monty was brought in to resuscitate it. Monty smartly retooled the soap to appeal to younger audience: teenagers. "Hmmm, there's a teenager, Genie Francis -- curl her hair, put some makeup on her!" says Francis, imitating Monty's voice. "Give her a story!"
Suddenly Francis was working five days a week and carrying the show to the top of the ratings. At first she savored the challenge. "I was champing at the bit to prove myself, to show them that I could act," recalls the actress. "I wanted a real story." She was pulling in a reported $150,000 a year, and the show quickly -- and regrettably -- became her entire world. "Gloria suggested that I leave high school so I would be more available to work. Unfortunately," she says, her voice shifting lower, "I agreed to do that." While she now rues not having attended college, at the time she dutifully took a proficiency exam and graduated from high school six months early. Her "graduation ceremony" was held in the studio's green room; after cake was served, everyone returned to the set.
This was just one of the steps in Francis's descent into being treated more like a product than a person. "If, from a business perspective," says Denise Alexander, who played Laura's mother on the show, "you have a commodity that is working, bringing you an audience, obviously you utilize that. But (the producers) did that without realizing this is a 15-year-old kid. They needed to lighten up. It became way too much for her physically. They didn't understand that until the doctor said she had walking pneumonia."
Francis doesn't recall being diagnosed with pneumonia but admits that she worked at the expense of her well being. "I remember being very sick and they wouldn't send you to a doctor," she recalls. "They'd give you vitamin-B12 shots rather than give you time off. I worked through all of my childhood diseases. There were no sick days. I broke out with the measles during my Sweet-16 party in the green room and went out and did the show."
Ultimately Francis felt isolated and strung out from her relentless schedule and sudden celebrity. High school friends deserted her because, Francis suspects, they were jealous. The teenager got cold shoulder at home as well. "It was hard to be in my family at that point," she reveals, alluding to her father's failed aspirations.
"Although he was happy for me," says Francis, “it was also a bitter pill for a guy who'd struggled all of his life to get where I got in two years. My mother was trying to make my brothers feel equally appreciated, and doing it by not talking too much about what I did. By keeping it almost like it wasn't happening." She laughs at the memory: "I'd step out the door and people were going 'Aahh!' Step in the door and it's 'We don't talk about that here.' It was very bizarre."
Personal and professional difficulties were compounded by low self-image. "I've never had good self-image," she admits. "I'm insecure, really shy." Years of psychotherapy helped repair her self-esteem. "I've gone, off and on, for quite some time," she says. "I check in when I need it and check out when I don't." But she stresses that one of the greatest boosters to her self-esteem has been the love of her husband.
She first met her husband in 1982 when, a year after leaving General Hospital with a prime-time development deal with CBS, she played opposite him in the miniseries Bare Essence. Ten years her senior, Frakes says they had a teasing relationship if anything, until they met again three years later when they both were cast in the miniseries North and South (Parts I and II). "She had the same smiling face"' he recalls, "but she was a young lady, no longer a kid. We flirted and flirted." Their first date, however, was less than dreamy. "I took her to McDonald's," recounts Frakes. "We sat in a rented car in a parking lot of a church in Natchez, Miss., eating cheeseburgers."
They married three years later and brought an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Francis, bruised by her failure to cross over from daytime TV to prime time, re-focused her energies on a career in theater. But it too proved to be an uphill battle. She supplemented her stage work with side trips back to soaps and occasional miniseries. The high point of her foray into theater: landing the starring role in an off-off-Broadway play whose closing was announced on opening night. Frakes, meanwhile, won his role on Star Trek and had to move to Los Angeles, where the series is filmed. The couple endured a bi-coastal marriage until last year, when the distance became unbearable. "I'd come back from really grueling auditions," recalls Francis, "to this beautiful apartment we'd bought and decorated, and nobody was there. It just hit me hard. I wanted to come home and have a child running across the floor toward me and have my husband waiting. Living alone was too hard."
Francis decided to make her personal life a priority and return to Hollywood and to General Hospital, which is shot there. Even now she and Frakes don't get to see much of each other during the week because of their hectic schedules, but they make up for it on Saturdays and Sundays. "We're very quiet and homebodyish on the weekends," she says. Mixing with the neighbors over a back yard barbecue or catching a matinee are major outings for the couple. Showbiz socializing is limited to conventions of Star Trek fans at which Frakes is asked to appear. Francis accompanies him on the trips to such cities as Boston and Philadelphia and sits in the audience with other fans while he interacts with the crowd from the stage.
Making Room for Three
When Francis returned to General Hospital, motherhood wasn't on her agenda. "I got pregnant," she says with a surprised laugh, her dark-blue eyes widening, "without trying!" She always knew she wanted children someday but had never pinpointed when. "I just never felt ready," she admits. "I was concerned about my ability to let go ( of my career). To make my life more balanced, make my life about taking care of someone else, and also, about taking care of me."
Ironically, the soap whose storylines guided her through adolescence also primed her for motherhood. Luke and Laura returned happily married parents of a son, played by an 11-year-old actor. Francis was surprised at how much she adored having the boy on the set. She even helped him with his lines on a day when she had a staggering 70 pages of script to plow herself. "It showed me that there is part of me very ready to be a mother," she says. "And once I had knowledge myself, it's almost like my body had permission ( to become pregnant)."
Francis's pregnancy was written into the script, but perhaps the most charming stories have transpired behind the scenes with her real-life husband. "I've always known Jonathan would be a fabulous parent," says Francis. "Not someone who wants the baby washed and powdered and handed to him at night. He's right there with me now with the pregnancy; he's really involved." The expectant mother has caught him reading books on nutrition during pregnancy, and the good intergalactic soldier wrestled with a baby stroller in a store for at least 20 minutes trying to reposition it. "Once he got the hang of it, I decided another model was more efficient," says Francis, laughing at the scenario.
Aside from having morning sickness from the sixth to the 14th week, Francis hasn't found pregnancy particularly problematic. The biggest challenge it has posed, she says, is giving up cigarettes ( she quit when she found out she was expecting), diet soda and artificial sweeteners: "There's nothing conclusive about the effects of artificial sweeteners, but there’s nothing to prove yet that they aren't harmful. So I figured I wouldn't risk it and eliminated them from my diet. I also quit drinking coffee and any other beverages with caffeine. My neighbors have voted me 'the most boring woman in the zip code'." She's also prudently reduced her daily aerobics to a half hour of low impact variety.
Looking Down the Road
The actress isn't sure how long her stint as Laura will last. "This is a visit for these characters. I won't say how long they'll be here for because I don't know myself," she says.
In the meantime Francis plans to take 6 weeks of maternity leave and keep her options open. "Ultimately", she divulges, "what I'd really like to do is a comedy. America's sweetheart ingenue could possibly grow up to be a sitcom mom." It wouldn't be such a stretch for the actress -- as Laura she gets her share of lighthearted moments and jokes. And what does she plan to do if her child one day announces the he or she wants to go into showbiz? Pointing at her belly, Francis states emphatically, "I will say that this baby is going to college before he or she goes into acting." It doesn't take a metal detector to discern the steel beneath her accompanying laugh.
By Nancy Spiller