Golden Girl

From Childhood To Motherhood, Daytime Icon Genie Francis Has Grown Up On GH

The wedding of General Hospital’s Luke Spencer and Laura Baldwin is a font of fond memories. Fans remember skipping college classes and playing hooky from work to watch the ceremony; ABC remembers the more than 14 million viewers who made the wedding the highest-rated daytime event ever; and Genie Francis -- well, she remembers her aching back.

“Well, I hate to say it, but my biggest recollection of that day really was how physically uncomfortable I was,” she says with a laugh. “I was in spiky heels on this very mushy wet lawn. My dress was made out of something that wrinkled very easily, so I was not allowed to sit down once I put that dress on. I was in it from 6 a.m. to something like 7 at night. I just wanted to get into my tennis shoes and me sweats in the worst way! I also have a fond memory of doing the Virginia reel that afternoon. That’s the part of the day that I really enjoyed.”

Nearly two decades after Francis first joined GH (Dec. 28 will be her 20-year anniversary), the saga of Luke and Laura, which culmulated in their lavish, two-episode wedding on Nov. 16 and 17, 1981, remains one of soap opera’s most influential and resonant storylines. Not only did the dynamic duo created by former GH executive producer Gloria Monty breathe some new life into a show that was dwelling deep in the ratings cellar, but also became a bona fide cultural phenomenon, even landing Francis and Geary (Luke) on the cover of Newsweek. Francis still marvels at how important her alter ego is to soap history.

“I think the real impact hit me when a recent TV Guide cover came out with us on it for television’s greatest moments,” she says. “It had the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, Nixon giving up his presidency and then us. I thought, “Wait a minute, I can’t possibly be in that company!” And 15 years later, too, that we’re still thought of in that company, that truly amazes me.”

When she entered Port Charles at the age of 14, with a 1 ½ show per week guarantee, Francis had no indication of her future as a soap icon. “I started out on the show as a little girl, in scenes with Denise Alexander (ex-Lesley Webber) where I said things like, “Mommy, can I grow strawberries on the terrace?” she remembers. But when Monty took over in 1978, she made the actress the centerpiece of her new vision for a faster-paced, younger-skewing GH. “Gloria said she wanted to bring fantasy and humor and adventure into the soaps, since they already had plenty of kitchen drama,” says Francis. “She told my parents, ‘My idea is to use your daughter to capture this young audience.’ I was absolutely chomping at the bit to prove myself as an actress, so I welcomed the opportunity with a lot of gusto.”

Anyone who’s seen GH since then knows where the opportunity led. Luke and Laura’s infamous romance (which began when he raped her on the floor of his disco) and their adventures on the run -- first from the mob and then, in the Ice Princess story, from Mikkos Cassadine and his plans to freeze the world with his snow machine -- captivated the nation in a way soaps had never done before. “It was pretty scary and overwhelming,” says Francis of the fan reaction and GH’s popularity. When asked what it was about Luke and Laura that created such a dedicated and zealous group following, Francis pauses before offering her theory.

“It’s something we all want to believe in. Luke and Laura were underdogs -- she was bounced from home to hom, he was poor and from the wrong side of the tracks. Their story said, if you love each other enough, you can overcome all the odds and you will be the prince and princess. Americans love the underdogs, and everyone just got onboard with that,” says Francis. As for the frenzy the show created, it still leaves the actress somewhat befuddled. “What happened in the country was really beyong good storytelling or good acting or good show making. It really moved into sort of a cult kind of reaction, and that I can’t explain to you. That would be a question for a sociologist.”

While the hype aound Luke and Laura has finally faded just a bit (and the plots about “carbonic snow” are history, today the pair is doing what they’ve always done -- best fighting the Cassadines.Even though the battle Luke and Laura are waging against Stefan is a throwback to the days when the characters provided GH with a steady supply of suspense and adventure, Francis says the duo serves a different purpose these days. “I think what we offer now mostly is a nostalgic feeling, a sense of history. People can connect with is and go, ‘Oh, god, I remember when,’” she says. “The classic Luke and Laura that we were doing then… they don’t write that anymore. They’re much more predictable characters today, which is a little sad for me, but nevertheless that is the way it is.”

Even as GH prepares an entire episode dedicated to Luke and Laura’s glorious history, to air Nov. 15, the future of the Spencer family is uncertain. While the on-screen threat of Stefan in the Spencer’s life will most likely be conquered by Luke and Laura’s undying love, offscreen there are monumental changes occurring in Francis’ life. “I’m expecting my second child,” she says proudly. “I think I’ll probably be due in June; I haven’t had my first ultrasound.”

It’s not clear yet how Francis’ pregnancy will affect her future at GH, as the actress says she has always struggled with dividing her time between her “family” at work and her children at home. “I don’t really know how long I’ll be staying. If I do leave, it’s certainly not going to be because I didn’t enjoy my time here or I don’t like being here. It’s been a wonderful place for me. I’ve never really found a peaceful kind of acceptance of leaving my kids with someone else. It’s never been an easy choice for me,” she says. “I think I just signed [a contract] for like three years or something. But it really just depends on the call to motherhood and the call to General Hospital.”

by Kristen Baldwin