The Education of Genie Francis

For the Star
Lessons in Smiling and Love Scenes

Graduating from ‘General Hospital’ to a prime-time TV-movie, young Genie Francis had a lot to learn

“Bare Essence,” Warner Bros.’ four-and-a-half-hour TV-movie for CBS (this Monday and Tuesday, Oct. 4 and 5), is about the perfume business. This is hazardous, since it inevitably will tempt the critics to comment on the odoriferousness of its script and concept, which are hardly Shakespearean -- and not even Harold Robbinsian.

Nonetheless, watching the filming of this epic for several days this past summer, one became immediately aware that this was a high-class production. There were lots of live flowers in vases. The women nearly always wore evening gowns, and the dresses did not come from the musty Warner Bros. Wardrobe department, but were created by a noted designer, Nolan Miller. The men nearly always wore tuxedos with ruffled shirts. The dialogue let you know at once that these were jet-setters. Example: “Oh, yes, we met on the Concorde.”

In the midst of all this splendor -- and emoting in nearly every scene -- was plump, exquisite-looking Genie Francis, just turned 20 and newly arisen from soap (General Hospital) to perfume.

Who cannot remember Genie of the Luke-and-Laura madness that propelled General Hospital into the forefront of the national consciousness last year? Yet here, on the “Bare Essence” locations, she was little more than a frightened kid: the star of the movie, yet trying to pit her scant five years of daytime-serial experience against such seasoned pros as Lee Grant (renowned as both actress and director), Linda Evans (a star of Dynasty), Bruce Boxleitner (Bring ‘Em Back Alive), Donna Mills (Knots Landing) and Joel Higgins (Silver Spoons).

Often, she didn’t know what to do. The others were kind and tried to help her.

Example: The company is filming in Sunland, Cal., in a restaurant that was the headquarters of the pro-Nazi Bund in the 1930s. Now it is supposed to be a bucolic country inn outside Paris. Genie Francis (the name is a contraction of Eugenie and not meant to connote someone who springs out of a lamp) is required to speak her lines off camera so that Bruce Boxleitner can respond to them in a so-called “reaction shot” focusing on his face. Boxleitner says, “Get as close as possible to the camera lens, honey.”

Francis says, “Oh. In the soaps, I just used to sit on a box off to the side.”

Director Walter Grauman says, “Not here, sweetheart. It’s gotta seem like you’re being looked right in the eye.”

Francis sits so close to the camera that when it turns, the lens clops her painfully on the head.

Another example: Francis asks Linda Evans, “How do you prevent your gums from showing when you have to smile right into the camera?” The reply: “Just press your tongue against the roof of your mouth, dear.”

In the next shot, Francis takes her advice and not a millimeter of gum is in view.

Yet, with all her tyro qualities, Genie Francis is a good actress. In one scene, for example, she has to express annoyance and jealousy when her would-be lover’s ex-mistress (an Italian princess, of course) approaches them in a restaurant. Lee Grant mutters, “Damn, but that kid knows her craft. Just watch her. She has no lines, but she’s getting her jealousy across to the audience just with her eyes.” The other veterans in the cast admiringly concur.”

In fact, during the filming, the cast and crew spent an inordinate amount of time discussing Francis, who seems tagged for superstardom by this, her first major prime-time role. She plays a plain-Jane Malibu girl with the improbable name Tyger Hayes, who, following the death of her father, a Hollywood movie mogul, is invited to New York by her rich, much-married mother (Linda Evans). Mom introduces her to high society and helps her land a job with the company that backed her father’s last film. There, Tyger persuades her boss to enter the perfidious world of perfume manufacturing. What follows is much skullduggery and intercontinental hopping in and out of bed on the part of all concerned, most notable the now sleek-and-elegant Tyger and a dashing former international-race-car driver (played by Bruce Boxleitner).

The sudsy quality of this saga was fortunate for Francis in her big-time-TV debut. “It isn’t much different from the stuff I used to do in General Hospital,” she says, “except that now I only have to learn maybe seven pages of dialogue a day instead of 50.”

Others in the cast agree that “Bare Essence” is close enough to daytime soap opera to have created a fairly easy transition for her, but they add that she had varying degrees of problems. This was the major topic one day while everyone waited for shooting to begin at Pips, a very posh Los Angeles private club. The delay was caused by the fact that director Grauman felt the club didn’t look posh enough, and, as was his custom, he solved the problem by ordering many dozens of fresh flowers to be brought in vases from the studio.

Watching the procession of flowers going past -- sort of a miniature Rose Bowl Parade -- Bruce Boxleitner said, “When Genie first showed up for the start of the production in New York, I was amazed at how much she knew, what with her age and limited acting experience, but the kid was really scared to death. She didn’t sleep at all for the first few days and we were doing a lot of night shooting, which was totally unfamiliar to her. Finally I said, ‘Look, Genie, we’re all scared at the beginning of a new picture.’ When she realized she wasn’t alone in her anxieties, she settled down some.”

Joel Higgins didn’t know what to expect when Genie first showed up in New York. He said, “Here was this kid, then only 19 years old, and the Luke-and-Laura nonsense with Tony Geary had made her as big a celebrity as Nancy Reagan. Would she walk in and throw her weight around? She didn’t. In fact, she won us over by always asking our advice about things she didn’t know.”

“Right,” said Boxleitner. “She didn’t even know that when she does a scene in bed with a guy, most of the time the guy isn’t there. When it came time for her bed scene with me, I had to say to her, ‘For God’s sake, Genie, when I get of bed after the first establishing shots, you just keep your eyes on that little piece of tape just below the camera lens. You have to look as if you’re making love to that little piece of tape. Later, I’m going to have to look as if I’m making love to that little piece of tape. Then they splice it all together.’ She said, ‘Oh,’ and she did it right the first time. In soap opera, they just suck face, hop into the sack for a few symbolic seconds, the director says ‘Cut’ -- and that’s it.”

Donna Mills said, “Don’t knock soap opera. At the beginning of my career, I did three years in Love is a Many Splendored Thing and I learned more than in all my time on the stage and in acting schools. I think the daytime soaps are the best training ground for young people going into television today. It’s the equivalent of the repertory theaters in England. The kids in the soaps learn camera angles, how to move and, most of all, how to think on their feet when something goes wrong, because there isn’t time for retakes. Just look at how skilled Genie is for a young woman with nothing but daytime experience.”

“Yes, sir,” said Joel Higgins, another soap-opera alumnus. “That Fritz can hold her own with any of us.” Why does he call Genie “Fritz”? He said enigmatically, “Anyone I like I call Fritz.”

The next day at lunch, Francis was sanguine about being able to hold her own on the set with her more experienced costars. She then spoke candidly about her off-screen interests (“I work with autistic children in a school near my home”), her ambition (“Very candidly, I want to get off the little screen and onto the big screen as soon as possible”) and her romantic-life shortcomings (“I’m just beginning to date guys after all those years of spending my evenings memorizing the next day’s soap-opera script”). Mostly, thought, she talked about her background.

The daughter of Ivor Francis, a man whose name you might not recognize but whose face you have seen in a thousand movie and TV character roles, she was reared in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles and played just one small part, in an episode of Family at age 13 before being cast in General Hospital. As Laura in the soap opera, she endured all sorts of indignities -- including rape by Luke -- between her 14th and 19th birthdays.

“I had no adolescence,” she said. “The show was my entire life, day in and day out, for five years. So last year, after all the Luke-and-Laura publicity, I decided to leave. I actually was looking forward to being unemployed for a while. But just one week later, CBS called me in to have lunch in their executive dining room and I was signed to a ‘developmental deal’ to make TV-movies and one series pilot.”

“Bare Essence,” came along a short time later, in May 1982. “The reason I was so scared when I went to New York to start shooting,” she said, “was that I am very familial and for the first time in my life my dad wasn’t there to calm me down and advise me and pave the way with people like Lee Grant, with whom he had worked. But Dad had had a stroke, from which he now fortunately has recovered. I was lucky, though, because Bruce and Joel and Linda all filled in for him.”

Although she now lives alone in a town house in the San Fernando Valley, she is only 15 minutes from her parents’ home and spends nearly all her weekends with them. She also speaks to her mother, Rosemary, by phone at least once a day -- even from the set. The young-girl attitudes are still there, along with the baby fat.

It will change. The baby fat will disappear and -- if form holds -- so will the innocent sweetness. The odds are that “Bare Essence” will make Genie Francis a top star. She already is fighting with various studios about the series-pilot ideas that have been presented to her. “In every one of them so far,” she snarls, “they want me to be a girl detective.”

Ah, well, that’s Hollywood. A Barbie doll is a Barbie doll. But this Barbie doll is not so pliant. She says, “They can take their Cagney and Laceys and Charlie’s Angels and….”

The childlike voice trails off into what sounds like an unchildlike obscenity.

By Bill Davidson