Soap Opera's Tragic Princess

Genie Francis had to grow up in a hurry to attract teen-age viewers to 'General Hospital'.

Two years ago, when she was 16, Laura Webber murdered her lover when he confessed he was double-timing her with her mother. Later she ran off to a commune, and then she married her childhood sweetheart. But that turned semi sour when she fell for another guy -- with underworld connections -- who subsequently raped her at a deserted disco parlor where she was working. Even though Laura is trying hard to get over the rape -- the disco beat continues to haunt her -- she is still attracted to the rapist, and still married to her childhood sweetheart.

In the ways of the world, Laura Webber has left the actress who has portrayed her for three and a half years, Genie Francis, far behind. Laura and Genie each received their first kissers at the same time, but since then Laura Webber has packed a whole lot of living into a few short years. Genie Francis, on the other hand, still lives with her parents and has barely dated.

As Laura Webber on ABC's top rated soap opera, General Hospital, Genie Francis manifests a confused teen-age girl's struggle to love and be loved. As the plot turns, she is sometimes rebellious, sometimes conniving, and often bittersweet. A nation wide poll naming Genie Francis as the Best New Daytime Actress of 1979 indicates that her kind of adolescent suffering is in demand. Moreover, she receives up to 300 fan letters a week, mostly from other teenagers who sympathize with the general chaos of Laura's life. For example: a female student at Princeton University, where Soap Opera watching is at a new peak, says, ‘‘Your life makes my life at Princeton bearable''

At 18, Genie Francis herself is on the brink of womanhood and at a crossroads in her career. Recently, during a break in the morning rehearsals for General Hospital, and just a few hours before her television ''family'' helped her celebrate her 18th birthday at a surprise party, she sat in her dressing room and reflected on her four years in show business. She took a long drag on a cigarette and leaned forward. She wore short shorts and a green tank top, ''I've had to sacrifice my childhood to get where I am today,'' she said, ''I've missed a lot of living.''

What Genie Francis means by a lot of living is, of course different from what you or I mean by a lot of living. She means high school football games, proms and summer days at the beach. ''I've never had those things,'' she says. ''My growing up and my schooling took place here on the set. Without my TV family I would have missed everything.'' The day she turned 16, members of the cast gave her a Sweet-16 party. A year later, when she passed her high school proficiency exam, they organized a graduation ceremony. ''It was so touching,'' Genie remembers. ''They had a tape recording of 'Pomp & Circumstance.' I cried.'' When her neighborhood friends, busy with high school activities, first began to drop away, Genie felt lonely and isolated. Then, she says, she became obsessed with her career. ''It was on my mind 24 hours a day. Every night I would close my bedroom door and sit on the floor, thinking in character about the story lines. I was 14-going-on-25. It's no wonder that I eventually began to feel like a fish out of water with the people my own age.''

And yet, she says that when she is with the adults on General Hospital, ''I lose my point of view too.'' In a sense she is defined by opposites. She is young and old, tough and shy, woman and child. Her dressing room, like her character, bears this out. On the one hand she displays a large Raggedy Ann doll, for which she has a childlike affection. Yet, resting on the coffee table, and very much alive in her mind, is a book she is currently reading, an adult narrative called ''A Woman of Independent Means.'' Later, Kin Shriner, who plays Laura's husband, Scotty, on the show, told me: ''I often think Genie is as confused and scared as Laura, although she seems so self-assured. Somehow she thinks that she has missed the world, and she's bitter. She thinks everyone else her age is having a great time. Well, I think she should find out; maybe go to college, get out into the world. That's the only way she is going to realize what she hasn't missed what she thinks she has missed.''

If acting talent is hereditary, then Genie's career was all but predestined. Born the daughter of veteran character actor Ivor Francis and his actress model wife Rosemary, who gave up acting to raise three children, Genie said she felt determined to be an actress by the time she was 10 years old. By age 12 she was the star of her first stage play one she also choreographed and directed. ''I'll never forget my first applause,'' she says. Afterwards her father gave her his official blessing. ''You belong up there,'' he told her, ‘‘And you are going to make it.'' That night they mapped out a strategy. But sometimes the best strategies go awry, and a month later Genie had her first rejection: I went to a commercial agent who told me she would not send me out on auditions until I got my teeth straightened. It slowed down the process.'' But a year later she won a guest role on the television series Family, and in Jan 1977, when she was 14, she was picked to play Laura Webber. A year later Laura Webber was one of the best known teen-agers in America.

Genie's joining General Hospital was followed shortly by the arrival of the program's current producer, Gloria Monty. In her effort to resuscitate the ailing show, Monty was ruthless. She threw out dozens of scripts, hired new writers and actors, brought in top-notch set designers and technical people, and set to work: ''And by work I mean 15 hours a day, seven days a week,'' says stage manager. ABC hoped her efforts would attract the after school teen-age audience, which they believed could be hooked on soap operas as much as their mothers. ‘‘We didn't go after ladies behind their ironing boards, or the ones in their rockers,'' says Monty, ''because we already had them. We wanted to get the kids.''

To get the kids, they gave them the kid. Within a few months Genie's part jumped from 10 pages a day to 50, from 2 shows a week to 5. ''Gloria put sex and romance into Laura's life,'' says Genie, ''and it bowled me over. Here I was doing things in front of 20 million people that I had never done in my own life. It certainly speeded up my growth process.''

Sex is one thing, but murder is another. 8 months after Gloria Monty revived General Hospital, she directed Laura in the murder of her older lover. ''Suddenly, '' says Genie, ''my mail doubled''. Although the young kids couldn't relate to the actual murder, they could relate to the feelings of betrayal and really identify with the mother-daughter slant. See, my mother took the rap for me, and for months we played heavily on the mother-daughter relationship. I guess that 's when we first hooked the teen-agers.''

Within a year, a healthy General Hospital shot to the top of the ratings, where it has remained for the past two years. ''The whole time, '' says Monty, ''Genie was incredible. The more we increased her part, the more conscientious she became. Now that she is finally 18, and there are no more legal restrictions on how many hours she can put in, we plan to work her even harder.''

Maybe, maybe not. Now that Genie Francis has turned 18, she has other things on her mind, both personal and professional. ''She's too good to stay here, '' says Kin Shriner, ''and yet she is scared to leave. But right now I think she is just biding her time -- either that, or wasting it.'' ''Wasting time.'' She repeats the phrase, then smiles. ''That's nice, '' says Genie, ''but not true. I really had no earning power until last year, and no experience, and now I have both.'' Genie's salary reportedly topped $150,000 last year. ''I'm finally getting back what I put in.'' she says, ''but still, I'm at a point where I could do this show in my sleep. So, I don't think I'll be here much longer.''

What are her alternatives? ''I've thought about going to college full-time like Jodi Foster has done.'' she says seriously. Right now Genie is taking Psych 1 at Los Angeles Valley College. She is also working on ''Oklahoma City Dolls, '' a tv-movie for ABC. ''But, I've also thought about feature films.'' And now when has a faraway look in her blue-green eyes. ''After all,'' Genie confesses, ''I've never really wanted to be anything else but an actress.''

Two hours later, at her birthday party, Genie is cutting into an enormous white cake decorated with 18 baby pink roses, as 100 members of her tv family sing ''happy birthday''. This time Genie Francis is not crying. ''I hated every single minute of being 17, '' she says. ''I couldn't wait to be an adult -- officially.'' The next day, she left for a two-week vacation in Hawaii with a girlfriend. ''Although I have a lot of questions on my mind, '' she says, ''the only thing I want to know when I come back from this trip is how it feels to be a woman.'' Maybe Laura Webber can give her some advice.

By Mary Murphy