“General Hospital,” the longest running scripted show currently in production, turns 60 on April 1, and to commemorate that momentous occasion, Variety gathered five of its iconic stars together. Here, Genie Francis, Maurice Benard, Kin Shriner, Kristina Wagner and Tristan Rogers discuss the ABC’s soap opera’s loyal fandom, and reminisce about its heyday, when supercouple Luke (Anthony Geary) and Laura (Francis) — creations of then-executive producer Gloria Monty — lifted the show into the pop culture stratosphere.
“General Hospital,” one of only four remaining daytime dramas, keeps breaking its own Emmys records — having won Outstanding Daytime Drama 15 times. Frank Valentini, its executive producer and showrunner since 2012, says incorporating the show’s legacy characters with new cast members is key to its longevity. “We’re not focusing on the history,” he says. “We’re moving forward with the history.” It helps that viewers see the cast as family: “For a large part of the audience, it is an incredibly nostalgic, familiar show that they love to check in on,” Valentini says.
Francis turned 60 last year, having joined the cast of “General Hospital” at age 15. “This show was going to be canceled when we started,” she says with a laugh, addressing Shriner. These castmates have known each other for decades, which is evident from their comfort as a group: They laugh, they mock each other — and they get serious too. “I’m proud, very proud, to be a part of this show,” Francis says. “And that it’s made it to 60 years — and that I’m still sitting here around the table talking about it!”
What’s it like to play a character for so long? Do you fuse with them, and they with you?
Kin Shriner: I crossed the Kin-Scotty line decades ago. I can’t tell the difference anymore. What you get is what goes on camera. Same guy!
Maurice Benard: I came in playing a bipolar character. I thought it was great, being a Method actor coming in and playing this — and it’s great for acting, but not great for my life. I’ve had to figure out how to maneuver that.
Shriner: There’s no you in Sonny?
Benard: Yes, there is, and the hard part is that Sonny is bipolar, and I’m bipolar. That’s been difficult in a lot of ways. But it is who I am, and you’ve just got to play it as real as you can.
Tristan Rogers: My first day on set, I took Gloria aside and I said, “Gloria, this script here — this is not the way an Australian would react under these circumstances.” And she looked at me as if to say, “You impertinent son of a bitch, how dare you!” But she said, “All right, change it.” And that’s what started my steamrollering through pretty much any script at the time.
Genie Francis: Yes, and you made it a lot funnier as well. I never knew what those two would say! Never.
Kristina Wagner: I can relate to that as well. Because when I was working with Jack [Wagner], we improvised most of our scenes. I remember one day in particular Gloria brought up a whole bunch of the writers, and she said, “Write the way they’re doing it!”
Is there some Genie in Laura, and Laura in Genie?
Francis: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I came on as a child, and I based my character on my own need to be loved. And to find love. And that was enough for me. It was just me in that situation, wondering who loved me. And now I base it on, who can I love?
But my favorite thing about Laura is her heart. Her heart is, of course, my heart. But her heart is my heart on a good day, let’s put it that way. Laura has less bad days than I do. I have to work more on forgiveness than Laura does. Laura’s got a really big heart, so I’d say she’s probably the best part of me.
Do you all have any memories of particularly meaningful storylines?
Wagner: I fell in love with my co-star, and we had two children together. I remember the day that happened. It was 1986, I think it was a Policeman’s Ball. Dancing with him — I mean, he wasn’t falling in love with me, but I was falling in love with him. I remember the music, it was “Careless Whisper” by Wham! I’m so embarrassed. It’s so cheesy and campy, now looking back on it, but that shaped the character as I moved forward, really, with the rest of my life on that show.
And what I’ve learned, if we get a little more personal, is that you cannot live out the fantasy you’re pretending on stage. It’s harmful, and it’s toxic. You really have to learn how to step back and create your own life at home, because we are grinding away at this every single day. These have been huge, big life lessons for me. And I’m grateful to sit here and be able to share it.
Benard: For me, it was the AIDS storyline that just seemed so needed at the time. Soaps are the only thing that you can do in real time, which is phenomenal. And then the Alzheimer’s story — talk about art imitating life. Sonny’s father gets Alzheimer’s, and my dad gets Alzheimer’s. And then I played that for the year, and then Sonny’s father dies of Alzheimer’s and my dad dies of Alzheimer’s at the same time that I’m doing this story.
All of you are such a huge part of the history of pop culture. When the show was starting to get more and more popular in the late ’70s, were you feeling it?
Shriner: I have a story for that, with Genie. In the ’70s, I’d gone to Fort Lauderdale, and Genie was down visiting her aunt in Fort Lauderdale. And we went to a restaurant on the water, Stan’s. We were sitting there having dinner, and the waiter came up, and said, “There’s a few fans that would like to get your autograph.” We thought, “Oh, OK!” And we look over, and there’s a line of people down the stairs and out the door and down the block. And I said to Genie, “I think we’re onto something.”
What was it like when the show became so huge in the early ‘80s?
Rogers: Back in ’81, that was the year I will always remember. That was the year that “General Hospital” really went supercharged. There was this hysteria that surrounded anything to do with “General Hospital.” It was crazy. Nuts. Dangerously crazy, sometimes.
Do you ever think about why the show was so popular? What was resonating with viewers?
Shriner: I have a theory on that: kids that were forced to watch “General Hospital” with their mother and grandmother, all of a sudden there was a young girl who had problems and was their age. And the kids connected to Genie like nobody’s business. [To Francis] Well, you did put the whole goddamn thing on the map with your problems, and this a woman’s medium — you were the perfect girl and actress.
Francis: He’s making me cry right now.
Shriner: Oh, please. Save it for camera!
Francis: I know that Gloria did say to my father right after she took on the show, “I want to go after the teenage audience, and I want to use your daughter to do it.” It just moves me because I was so alone. I didn’t have any friends around my age. My whole peer group loved me from a distance.
I’ve never thought of it that way! How has the audience changed over the years?
Shriner: I don’t think the audience has changed — I think they’re just now grown up. The ones that fell in love with Genie, and connected to her in the ’70s, are still watching.
Rogers: I have to agree with that. People come up and say, “You know, I’ve been watching you for 40 years,” and you think, “Holy shit. Forty years, has it been that long?”
Francis: Do you find that they cry?
Rogers: Yes! You’re taking them back to an era that suddenly they remember.
Genie, Luke was killed off last year. What was it like for you to act in that storyline? Did it feel like closure in some way, or had you already said goodbye?
Francis: Honestly, I just didn’t believe it when it happened — me, Genie. I felt like they can’t really be doing this, because what did they get from this? And so I didn’t believe it. I thought perhaps they were laying groundwork for a wonderful return for him. But so far, I guess that hasn’t happened. So I don’t know. I guess I believe it now. Makes me sad.
But do you think the door is open? I mean, obviously people have come back from much worse deaths!
Francis: The cable car crashed — but they didn’t find a body!
I believe that “General Hospital” was the first show to go back into production in Los Angeles in summer 2020.
Benard: Yeah. Frank saved our jobs twice.
What do you mean?
Benard: Well, 10 years ago, when he came in, I thought we were done — and he kept it going. And then with COVID, he was the first one — because if it didn’t succeed, who knows what would have happened? So it was good for Frank. And I’m not trying to kiss his ass!
There were two actors who left because of the vaccine mandate. Was that a tense period at the show?
Benard: Look, these two guys who left, Steve and Ingo, they’re my friends. I got the vaccine really fast. Real quick. But you know, there’s something to say about if you really believe in something, it takes a lot of guts to do it, whether I think it’s right or wrong. I don’t think it’s right for me. But they did, and here we are.
Steve Burton left the show with a lot less animosity than Ingo Rademacher. Do you feel like Steve Burton could come back if there’s no longer a vaccine mandate? Or if he changes his mind?
Francis: I certainly hope so. Because he’s so missed — on screen and off. You’ve gotta admit, one of the nicest human beings who’s ever been with us.
Benard: He just works out too much. He’s too big!
“General Hospital” has always been led by strong women. But where are some areas where the show could do better in terms of being more inclusive?
Wagner: Well, I’m not sure if I agree with you — I don’t know if the show has always been led by strong women, you know? I mean, I felt under the thumb many times, and we’ve had conversations about that. It took a long time for women to get stronger on the show, and have a voice here.
I think that the #MeToo movement helped significantly, thank God. I mean, because what we lived through before the #MeToo movement, and much further back, is the polar opposite of what’s going on right now. So it’s interesting now, because we have intimacy coordinators — and all these things that have changed drastically.
You feel like the #MeToo movement really helped behind the scenes and onscreen?
Wagner: Yeah, all of Hollywood. Thank God! Thank God for it.
Benard: In the 30 years I’ve been here, this is the most I’ve seen it be female-driven.
Francis: And it used to be all about the males.
Benard: I never thought about it, I just was in it. But now that it’s female-driven, I like it. I’m into it.
Shriner: Maurice was the head of the fucking mob. It was all men, shooting guns and hanging out. Tristan and me were rogues. That’s all gone! And Tony? I don’t think Tony’d fare well in this new thing.
Francis: He’d be miserable!
Benard: I’m not miserable, I’m actually happier! I had a good 25 years, I’m good.
Wagner: But it’s time. Sometimes you need to step back and let other people shine for a while.
What do you think “General Hospital” represents to viewers? Why has it lasted 60 years?
Francis: Personally, I think it’s comfort and company for a lot of people. Nostalgia. It’s a break in their day, the ones who are watching in the daytime. And at night, it’s the comfort of something you’ve been touching base with for that many years. Where else in television does that exist? It doesn’t — for 60!
Benard: There’s no fanbase more loyal. And we’re like family, and that has not changed in 60 years — they’re going to turn on, because it’s like a family member. You don’t get that anywhere.
Francis: I think that’s why they cry when they meet us. I think that Maurice is right, that it is like a family member if you’ve been coming in the living room for that many years. And I think that is why when they meet me — you guys have had the experience, too — sometimes they’ll talk to you for a second, and they just start crying. And then they get embarrassed: Like, “I don’t know why I’m crying!” And I’m like, “It’s OK to cry.”
It reminds you of old times — and then they’ll start talking about their families.
What do you think we would lose if we didn’t have soap operas? What do they give viewers that other forms of entertainment don’t?
Rogers: They’re orderly. We solve our problems. A lot of people look at the show and say, “Why can’t I live my life like that?” Well, your life isn’t being scripted! We have a beginning, a middle and an end.
Francis: All the big hit shows they’re making now — it’s a wonderful time in television — they’re all continuing stories. We were the only ones doing that! So continuing stories coming into your house every day, it’s like, “I’ve got to check in with my people. See what’s happening to them today.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.