Soap Opera Digest 1987

Five Years After Leaving Her Legendary Role As GH's Laura Spencer, Daytime's Darling is Back -- And DAYS Has Her

She was once the hottest thing in the country, but unlike hula hoops, mood rings, and pet rocks, Genie Francis is still around.

There are those, mind you, who didn't expect her to be. After skyrocketing to a success unequalled before or since in soap opera history -- we're talking the cover of Newsweek and everything -- the gal who played GENERAL HOSPITAL's luscious Laura Spencer chucked it fall for fame in prime time. She got it, too. Mere weeks after her sayonara from GH, Francis was starring in her own plush, lush miniseries BARE ESSENCE. The through-the-roof ratings resulted in a quick order for an additional thirteen-episode series which followed up with an assortment of HOTELs, MIKE HAMMERs and MURDER, SHE WROTEs. She proved a Nielsen ratings queen again in one of the coveted magnolia-blossom roles in NORTH AND SOUTH, PARTS I and II. Still and all, she's been too often lumped into the "has been" category, too easily classified as a flash in the pan.

It only stands to reason, therefore, that her recent return to soap turf as DAYS OF OUR LIVES's Diana Colville would stir up total exultation from her camp of trusty followers and plenty of "I told you so's" from the doomsayers.

"Some members of the press have actually asked me, 'Well, do you feel like a failure now?'" reports the actress. If she's a flop, you'd never know it. The maitre d' at Le Dome, Sunset Strip's tres chic eatery, greets La Francis with as much, if not more, infatuation as he does the nearby-lunching Jaclyn Smith or Jane Fonda. The waiter really, truly cares whether or not she's enjoying her cobb salad. The busboys look like they've died and gone to Heaven.

Millions upon millions have dreamed of Genie and today, well over half a decade since the legendary wedding of Luke and Laura, she's as luminous and as magical as ever. He sparkle (there is much) and her laughs (there are many) are so genuine, it's a pleasure to sit across from her. And there's nothing, repeat nothing, high falutin about her. Maybe it's the engagement ring on her finger that's put life in a dandier perspective. Maybe, at the ripe old age of twenty-five, she's secure enough to leave the trappings of superstardom behind and just be, well, an actress.

"After GENERAL HOSPITAL, I didn't think I was going to go out and set the world on fire," Genie maintains. "I'd already done it. I really didn't think it was going to happen again." Contrary to popular assumption, her expectations were, in actuality, quite realistic: "I expected to work. I expected to make myself a better actress."

That, she did. Periodically skipping town in the post-GH years to study acting in New York City, Francis also had no qualms about accepting stage work in St. Louis (where she had them in the aisles with her clowning in the limey farce See How They Run) and Birmingham, Michigan (playing the bubbleheaded Sissy Spacek role in Crimes of the Heart). But while the TV jobs she's landed have usually been crowd-pleasers, the star readily admits she never gets considered for the milestone roles. "Celebrity has worked against me when it comes to the parts I would really love to do," Genie shrugs. "I would give my right arm for some of the things people like Mare Winningham get to play. But when I hear about them, I'll ask my agent, 'Can I go audition for that?' and quite often the response is, 'Nah, they want someone who hasn't been on the cover of TV Guide.' Hollywood likes to pigeonhole people, so my all-time, favorite inspiration is Sally Field. To be Gidget and the Flying Nun and then finally be able to a beautiful, wonderful piece of work like SYBIL! I pray to God every night that one day I'll get my SYBIL."

But Francis comes from sturdy stock -- her mom, Rosemary, is a former model and actress while her late father, Ivor, was a highly respected drama coach and one of Hollywood's busiest character actors -- so she knows which side her bread is buttered on. Delighted to return to the afternoon fold, she accepted the sudden DAYS OF OUR LIVES offer at 2:30 on a Friday afternoon and reported for work the following Monday morning without a trace of "attitude" and no reservations about the quickie decision. "It was all so fast and furious," Genie says, "that I figured out it was meant to be."

Contrary to what you might imagine, the daytime darling hadn't been inundated with soap opera offers prior to DAYS. In fact, there'd only been one -- to join the cast of SANTA BARBARA some two years ago but, according to a member of that show's production staff, talks broke down when the notoriously low-paying soap couldn't meet Genie's asking price. It's also a bit surprising, considering the reputation that was at stake, that the popular star didn't come armed with a lengthy list of requirements about the direction her new character was to take. If anything, Francis rather under-negotiated her deal and found herself playing a part that wasn't thoroughly developed.

Of course, it's a different story now. "They are sick of hearing from me," she laughs. "I'm sure when they see me heading toward the production office they say, 'Oh, no, here she comes again! Close the door and turn out the lights!'" As originally intended, the Diana Colville role was to be little more than a two-week stint taken on by a non-star performer, but when Genie surprisingly agreed to do it, the show's scribblers frantically scrambled for some kind of long-term character projection. Not frantically enough, however.

Francis, who's still in the dark as to what Diana will be doing next month much less next year, sort of giggle-laughs and, hoping to seem more businesslike than bitchy, carefully chooses her words: "I have... of course... gotten rather... insistent... about having some information as soon as possible."

She is undeniably a good sport, though. Most returning TV champs can count on a splashy, mega-watt grand entrance, but DAYS's supervising producer, Al Rabin, ordered up a much less glitzy arrival -- with the actress bruised, bloodied, beaten, and in a coma. Reports the exec: "We didn't want the elevator doors to open, let her stroll in all glamorous in a fur coat and have everybody think, 'By golly, it's Genie Francis!'" According to the gal, herself, "I think that decision was smart. If I came on with a 'Well, her I am!', the reaction would have been, 'Oh, yeah? Show me!' I'd rather just slip in and forget the ego-gratifying entry."

While Francis may have been wheeled in on a gurney, she hardly "slipped in." Her suds homecoming was widely and eagerly trumpeted by the media and got the collective goat of at least one DAYS sect -- the avid, often rabid group of Deidre Hall aficionados.

While it was mere coincidence that the departure of the popular actress (who played Marlena) occurred at the same time as Genie's sudden appearance on the serial, the massive Hall contingent (already in a frenzy because their idol had been given a quick, plane-crash dismissal instead of a more queenly, tear-stained exodus) cried foul. They suspected that the hiring of the former GENERAL HOSPITAL star was a blatant P.R. ploy to downplay the importance of Hall's adieu -- and their fire was further stoked when one of the tabloids ("A rag sheet," Francis harumphs) actually ran a report confirming the hunch. "Certainly, it didn't come from me," she says, unable to suppress a laugh, "but I think it may have come from other sources." It's widely rumored that the disgruntlement resulted in potential picket lines (squelched when NBC issued an edict to Deidre Hall, herself, to call of the troops), the delivery of a frozen turkey to DAYS producer Al Rabin and plenty of hate mail addressed to Genie. "The mail that I've received has all been positive," she insists. Still, the actress trails off, "My mom reads every piece and she pulls out all the stuff that's..."

There's something hopelessly, charmingly shy about her. Francis has often gone on record as having suffered through a frustrating teenhood, growing up too fast and never with any peer companionship (she started on GH at age fourteen, a year later they dolled her up and made her a murderess, and a year after that she was playing sexy bedroom scenes when she hadn't even been kissed in real life). Her Sweet Sixteen party and her high school graduation took place on the set -- but despite the back-patting cast celebrations, she felt oddly estranged from the adult performers, a feeling which lingered long after she'd left the show. Among the other stars in her NORTH AND SOUTH miniseries was Elizabeth Taylor -- with whom she'd acted on GH and shared the cover of People Magazine, for crying out loud -- but Genie couldn't get up the nerve to approach her. "We didn't have any scenes together, but I kind of felt like I wanted to say hello and everything. Still, I though, 'Maybe she won't remember me.' You know what I mean? She's like a legend."

Her romantic life circa GH wasn't exactly a constant lovefest, either. "When I was seventeen or eighteen, the age where you start dating a lot, I was also getting really, really popular. Most of the boys my own age were terrified by that. I wasn't a real person to them, I was up on a pedestal. The men who weren't impressed were thirty-five years old, which would have been robbing the cradle. It left a slim margin."

But, whoa, have things changed. This Christmas time, Francis plans to be marching down the aisle with her main squeeze, actor Jonathan Frakes, whom she first met during the shooting of BARE ESSENCE. Cupid somehow arranged for the two to co-star again, this time in NORTH AND SOUTH, but the dewey-eyed star claims there was no hanky panky on either set. "Nooooooooo," she says, with a cat-who-ate-the-canary grin. "We were friends for a very long time before we started dating."

Originally planned for this September, the Francis/Frakes nuptials had to be postponed when they couldn't jibe vacations. "I don't want to get married on a weekend and then go back to work on Monday," pouts the bride-to-be. "I wanna get married and go on a honeymoon." Secretly, she's tickled with the postponement, which resulted when Jonathan nabbed the running role of Commander Riker on the new STAR TREK syndicated series. Genie, you see, is one of those notorious Trekkies. "I know every episode," she bubbles. "I can do the dialogue right along with the actors."

The timing for all this couldn't be better. "As I get older," she reflects, "my work is still important to me but it is not my life. My real life is my home, my husband and, hopefully very soon, my children. The nice thing about this job is that I can work three days a week and be a wife, a mother, take cooking classes and have pansies in the garden -- so what I have achieved at this point in my life is what I've always wanted... balance."

Well, maybe one thing remains off-kilter. The guest list. "Jonathan wants to invite everyone he's ever met in his life. Everyone, everyone, everyone. I have a much shorter list."

As a result, her plans to hold a small ceremony in the backyard of the San Fernando homestead they share may not, eventually, hold much water. But even if they wind up having to rent out Madison Square Garden, Francis knows what she'll be wearing. The gown, by all reports a total knockout, was bought and paid for months ago.

"Don't worry," she winks, "I've got my priorities straight."

by Michael Logan