In Praise of a Classic Couple

Soap sensations Anthony Geary and Genie Francis have saved their best work for the second act

Fifteen years after the wedding of Luke and Laura -- the most-watched dramatic event in the history of daytime TV -- General Hospital's Anthony Geary and Genie Francis are once again the golden couple of soaps. Many predict their names will be called when the awards for Outstanding Lead Actor and Actress are presented at this week's Daytime Emmy Awards. But win or lose, it will be a night for the record books: Though Geary won an Emmy for playing Luke Spencer in 1982, Francis -- despite a critically acclaimed career spanning 20 years and three soaps -- has never been in the race at all.

"This nomination has me in total shock -- I'd pretty much accepted that this was a party I would never be invited to," says Francis, who joined GH when she was barely out of junior high. "Did I finally get old enough? Did I finally pay enough dues? I don't know why I've been recognized this year, but I'm grateful." Francis, who turns 35 this month, may be philosophical now, but that wasn't the case when Luke and Laura fever raged across the land. Recalls the actress: "Tony and I were on the cover of Newsweek together. They stopped Fifth Avenue in Manhattan to have us ride in on a coach together. But when it came time for Emmys, he was nominated and I was not -- it will never hurt worse than it hurt then. I dealt with that by not dealing with it. I stopped hoping for nominations; I stopped even knowing when the Emmys were on TV."

Geary's current nomination is his fourth. The last came way back in '83. "After such a big dry spell, this is kind of a treat," says the actor, who turns 50 this month. "I don't think anyone, least of all Genie and me, could have predicted we'd still be playing these parts--and be nominated--15 years after all the hoo-ha. I wouldn't mind doing this every 15 years." Chances are, future nominations will come along more often than that. With the itch to pursue prime-time and big-screen success now comfortably out of their systems, the two stars have settled into mature, deeply moving, deliciously detailed characterizations that have their peers in the industry (and a whole new generation of fans) in total awe. One particular plotline from last year -- a story suggested by Francis in which Laura was forced to tell Luke about her secret son by his nemesis, Stavros Cassadine -- continues to electrify the partnership. Geary, who can simultaneously play Luke as infuriated patriarch, wounded lover, and sardonic vigilante, is soaring in a new kind of creative free flight. Francis is every bit his equal, giving an emotionally bottomless, earth-mother performance that is remarkably fierce and primal.

"They are the most blazingly brilliant actors I've ever worked with," says soap vet Denise Alexander, who recently returned to GH as Laura's presumed-dead mother, Lesley. "They are 1,000 percent there in every single moment -- no matter the difficulties." And there have certainly been many of those. GH executive producer Wendy Riche has frequently wrangled with the twosome over story content, but says, "It's their constant, relentless pursuit of an honest performance that makes them unique. A lot of actors talk about honesty -- Tony and Genie live it. They will accept nothing less."

And how. During the past five months, GH -- which has won the Emmy for Outstanding Daytime Drama two years running -- has stumbled in both quality and ratings due to the often bewildering and lethargic plotting of head writer Richard Culliton. When Culliton left the show last month just days after an extremely tense story meeting with Geary, word swept across the World Wide Web that the actor had threatened to quit if Culliton wasn't canned. Some say Geary even punched the writer.

"The meeting did not go well, but I made no ultimatums and there was certainly no violence," says Geary. "I really don't know if I had anything to do with his departure, but I wouldn't shed any tears if I did -- I don't know any actor who wasn't complaining about the writing." (Culliton, who will remain as head writer if the upcoming GH spin-off Port Charles, refused to comment.) Says Francis of the turmoil, "Protecting the integrity of our characters is a constant battle for us. But if we don't fight it, no one will. Sometimes people think we're difficult because of that, but we're only difficult because we want to live up to the high standards we've set." She adds with a laugh: "I actually like it when Tony gets out of line. His bad behavior is very entertaining. He can go to horrid places I can't."

Emotionally frazzled by their early '80s superstardom, both actors tried to leave GH behind; Francis ostensibly left the show for good in '81, shortly after Luke and Laura said "I do," but made brief returns in '83 and '84. When she left for the last time, Geary went with her. She appeared in various miniseries and in the daytime soaps Days of Our Lives and All My Children; he worked in an array of TV-movies, independent films, and stage plays. During this period, the two had no contact with each other, but they have forged an impenetrable front since Luke and Laura returned to the show in '93.

Says Francis: "That reentry was terrifying for both of us. There was all this weight on our backs. Can they do it again? Will anyone care? That's why we cling to each other. We're each other's reality check." Says Geary: "We've both survived the same extreme success and the extreme disappointment that followed. Genie is the only other person on this planet who understands that part of me."

The bond is so tight these days that when Francis, expecting her second child with husband Jonathan Frakes (Star Trek: The Next Generation) on June 6, informed GH that she may not return for many, many months, Geary expressed solidarity. "I don't like to do Luke without Laura," he says. "She is his heart and his humanity. I don't want another romance. I'd rather lay low in Genie's absence and protect the Spencer franchise."

by Michael Logan

Thank you to Nancy for this article!