General Hospital’s “Laura” Finds New Calling

Doing something that reflects her self, not the fictional self imposed upon her by her decades-old role as Laura on TV’s “General Hospital,” gives Genie Francis great happiness. The 44-year-old actress, who moved permanently to Belfast with her family last year after summering in the area for many years, is clearly proud of her new home furnishings store, The Cherished Home, which opened on Friday in Belfast. The expansive shop is full of bright colors, exquisite fabrics and accoutrements that indicate Francis has an eye for design.

“Making a home is a huge part of my soul,” Francis says firmly. The daughter of Canadian-born actor Ivor Francis, Francis entered the acting world at the young age of 14. “My father did the soaps and radio in New York,” Francis recalls. “And I wanted to be on ‘General Hospital.’ I asked him to take in a school picture and that was it. It happened so fast. I got the first audition and then the second audition and then I was hired.”

For Francis the “General Hospital” life was both exciting and frightening. “In those days, it was live TV. You did it once and you had to do it right,” she explains. Her character, Laura, was quickly paired with Luke, played by Tony Geary, and the fictional couple became the darling of soap opera fans. Their “General Hospital” wedding, in November 1981, drew millions of viewers and made television history.

“It was all very exciting,” Francis recalls. “During that time I was 17 to 19 years old. People were a little crazed, looking in my windows and such. I remember one time when we did a personal appearance, I had my hair in these big pigtails. We were walking through the crowd and someone grabbed me by the hair and pulled me into the crowd. It was certainly weird.”

Francis had to readjust her self-image after the Luke and Laura media extravaganza died down. “Oh, you feel as if no one loves you anymore,” Francis says in talking about those following years. “It was hard to separate the fame and adulation from me personally because I was so young. There really wasn’t any me at that point.” Francis left the show at age 19, starred in a mini-series, “Bare Essence,” then starred in a television series based on the mini-series, guest starred in other shows and then returned to “General Hospital” as Laura in 1993.

By that time she was married to actor/ director Jonathan Frakes, well-known for his role on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” The two met on the set of the mini-series “Bare Essence.” “He was like a big brother to me,” Francis says with a smile. “He teased me a lot and treated me like a regular person, not some princess.” The two reconnected several years later while filming the mini-series “North and South.” By the close of filming the two were dating. They married in 1988 and have two children, Jameson, 11, and Eliza, 9.

Francis continued to play Laura on “General Hospital” for an additional nine years before leaving the show in 2002. The writers concocted a storyline in which Laura kills her stepfather, suffers a nervous breakdown, forgets her beloved Luke and their children, and is put away in a mental hospital.

“Well, I was lost after that [leaving the show]. I didn’t know how to do anything but memorize lines and act in a soap opera,” Francis confesses. The family moved to London, England, for nearly three years during the filming of Frakes’ latest movie, “The Thunderbirds.” Francis felt depressed. “I took a lot of naps then,” she admits. “But then I started to think, what do I really love, what’s me, not this Laura stuff they put on me?”

Francis had not completed high school during her tenure with “General Hospital” but always had a strong interest in interior design. “So I went to a college there and talked to them about getting a certificate in interior design. The instructor said that he was concerned because I had never drawn. So I went to Kensington and Chelsea College to take their ‘I Can’t Draw’ class.” Francis laughs at the recollection. “Turns out that I can draw, that I love to draw! So I also took their ‘I Can’t Paint’ class and Drawing 101 and other great classes.” Asked if she plans to show any of her artwork at the new store, Francis demurs. “No, I draw for myself,” she says.

Life in Belfast seems to suit Francis and her family. Frakes is now teaching film to young students at Rockport College. “‘Thunderbirds’ [his last motion picture] was marketed horribly,” Francis says. “He got bruised by that experience. Being with young people, getting back to the art of storytelling rather than the business of film, that’s been a most healing experience for him.” She is delighted that her children can have what Francis terms a “normal” childhood. “Have you ever been to Los Angeles?” she asks. “Los Angeles is not normal. There’s just too much money. Children are picked up from school in Mercedes, BMWs, even stretch limousines. The little gift bag that children take home from birthday parties? Well, they give each a $250 iPod in the gift bag. It’s just nutty,” Francis says.

Francis will get to bridge her Maine life with that LA-scene this fall. She has agreed to reappear in “General Hospital” for several episodes beginning in October. The producers are using the 25th anniversary of fictional Luke and Laura’s wedding to reprise her character. How the writers will resurrect Laura from the mental hospital is still a mystery, said Francis.

She recalls her life as a child in Center Port, Long Island, a town that Belfast strongly reminds her of. “It was a tight community. People knew each other. Kids could play in each other’s yards,” Francis notes. “The people here have just treated us with so much kindness. It’s been wonderful.”

The Cherished Home, located on Route 1 just over the Passagassawakeag River, is open Monday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and on Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Francis plans to hold some special events to introduce customers to certain products she carries, such as the all-natural Farmaesthetics skin-care line, “made by another soap opera actress,” she explains. Still, judging by the buzz of people in the cheerful store this sunny weekday morning, it seems her store is meeting local needs. And The Cherished Home certainly meets a need for Genie Francis. “I have had a whole lifetime of being packaged and sold,” she says. “I had to learn to be happy.”

by Melissa Waterman

Thanks to Destinee for sending this article!