Saturday, September 8, 2012

FLASHBACK: What's next at 'General Hospital'? After Luke & Laura's Wedding 1981

What's next at 'General Hospital'?

By Jay Maeder
November 15, 1981

Hey, all the kids want to do is quietly get married and live happily ever after. But Luke and Laura are famous now and everything's suddenly bigger than the both of them, and the telephones keep ringing and ringing and ringing and there's no peace and quiet anywhere and everybody is pulling and pushing and it's starting to look as if practically everybody is coming to this wedding. Elizabeth Taylor is coming, for God's sake. Why, this wedding is about the biggest thing ever to happen in Port Charles.

It isn't as if nothing else is going on in Port Charles. The Quartermaines, they suddenly want their old enemy Scorpio to manage one of their diamond mines, which is pretty suspicious. Monica, meanwhile, she's decided she doesn't want a divorce after all. Bobbie, she's still determined to marry that nice young Dr. Drake. Rick and Leslie, they're getting back together again. Joe, he's in deeper than he knows with that schemer Heather. Scotty, he's in Mexico. Mike's grandmother, she's dead.

Upstairs in real life, the intrigue swirls at least as deep. The players are every bit as stock -- afternoon television's undisputed prince and his child-woman leading lady, both of whom want out of their blockbuster series, and three powerful ambitious women: the network programming underboss presiding over a pop revolution, the wizard producer she brought in four years ago to pull a falling series out of the tar pits, the chief writer who has rancorously left the program. At stake: GENERAL HOSPITAL, a monster hit like television has never seen before.

But this week, all anyone wants to hear about is the wedding, and the telephones are ringing and ringing, and in Century City, Tony Geary and Genie Francis are holed up deep, talking to no one; television's hottest stars stagger in the deluge, blink in the glare; television's hottest series burns up the Nielsens.

Still, the fundamental question remains, the one that becomes ever so much larger when you have, for example, just single-handedly saved the planet from destruction: Now what?

GENERAL HOSPTIAL slipped into ABC's schedule in April 1963, but today's average viewer probably has been a devoted acolyte for a couple of years now, ever since the magical Luke and Laura configuration began.

For millions of other reasonably well-informed citizens, there perhaps was no good reason ever to have heard of GENERAL HOSPITAL until several months ago. All at once, social order had a new darling, certified sensation by a Newsweek cover story, legitimized and credentialed beyond debate. Fourteen million people watch GENERAL HOSPITAL every afternoon, and the Nielsens give the show an astounding share of nearly 40.

Actor John Beradino guesses that the hot roll can't go on much longer, especially given the announcement by Genie Francis, who has been with the series for five years, that she intends to leave by the end of the year.

Beradino has been with GENERAL HOSPITAL since Day One and is mildly amused by what has become of what was once a conventional soap. He used to be the star, back when Dr. Steve Hardy was just the kind of wise and solemn physician that housewives and mommies liked to do the ironing to. These days, Dr. Steve doesn't do much but walk around the wards looking wise and solemn. "A real klutz," observes Beradino.

"The future is going to be interesting," says the former star, surrounded as he is by the youthful faces and increasingly bizarre story lines that producer Gloria Monty has pumped into the series. "I think we've seen the peak. The public is fickle, and we're obviously running out of plots." Beradino is, yes, speaking of the show's penchant for borrowing riffs from the movies, the most recent and notable being the celebrated Ice Process story, a dumbfounded piece of science fiction lifted from "Flash Gordon" serials. Luke Spencer saved the planet from a madman with a deep-freeze machine in this one, a foray into the unlikely that Beradino cheerfully agrees was ridiculous.

What GENERAL HOSPITAL is likely to do next beats John Beradino. "Who knows? We sit around sometimes and get up little pools."

The immediate future of GENERAL HOSPITAL is a matter approaching the mythic and epic. Luke and Laura's marriage Monday and Tuesday culminates a three-year courtship that has enchanted America ever since Luke raped Laura on a dance floor and they became fast friends. They will be going off on their honeymoon shortly, and Heather and her little machinations will dominate the story line for a while. A new subplot is developing even now, with Helena Cassadine's introduction into the scheme of things.

Helena is the widow of Mikkos Cassadine, the madman from whom Luke single-handedly save the planet. There was no Helena in the script until a particularly rabid GENERAL HOSPITAL fan decided she wanted to make a guest appearance and suggested she be written in. Her name is Elizabeth Taylor, and GENERAL HOSPITAL was delighted to rearrange its story line for her, belying the program's claim that plotting is carefully engineered months in advance. By some accounts, indignantly denied by ABC, the sole reason Luke and Laura are getting married is that Miss Taylor demanded the wedding as a condition of her appearance.

Miss Taylor's guest shot has only fueled daytime television's meteoric transit into respectability, and Jacqueline Smith, ABC's vice president in charge of daytime programming, predicts a scramble for soaper cameos by various larger-than-life figures; indeed, Ms. Smith says she plans "another superstar announcement" soon, and it is rumored that a rival soap, CBS's AS THE WORLD TURNS is negotiating with Mick Jagger for a quick turn. "Not unlikely," acknowledges Ms. Smith.

"Jagger?" Rick Springfield blinks. "Wait a minute." Springfield, a newcomer to the GENERAL HOSPITAL cast is still getting used to the idea of Elizabeth Taylor -- with whom he does a brief scene -- and with soap operas in general. A pop singer ("Jessie's Girl") and occasional actor who thought he was taking on just another job, Springfield, as Dr. Noah Drake, is emerging as the program's house hunk. "Listen, I wasn't even sure if I wanted this job," he says, sighing. "I was concerned about my rock 'n' roll credibility."

At this point Springfield is not unaware that the series is some plumb, however, and he plans to stick around. But he notes: "Things really aren't too long-range around here, you understand."

A month ago, even at the pinnacle of its popularity, GENERAL HOSPITAL lost all its writers. It is not clear if they were sacked or resigned en masse. "I don't want to talk about it," says ABC daytime chief Jacqueline Smith. "The show is a joke, and I don't want my name on it," snaps Pat Falken-Smith, the million-dollar-a-year chief writer who created the scripts that made the series famous.

Ms. Smith has been writing DAYS OF OUR LIVES for years when producer Gloria Monty brought her over to help overhaul GENERAL HOSPITAL. "So Laura had just married Scotty," she recalls, "and everybody was married and everybody was happy, and I said, 'Listen, thanks a lot, leaving me all this happiness.' And the thing to do was immediately get Laura unhappy. So we raped her.

"As it happens, I am famous for my rape stories."

That was the beginning of the Luke and Laura dreadnought. "The show went from No. 15 to No. 1 in two years, and I think that tells its own story," says Pat Smith, who considered herself at least as responsible for the GENERAL HOSPITAL phenomenon as anyone else. Personal differences with Jacqueline Smith and the hard-driving, demanding Ms. Monty -- who has been hospitalized and is not available for comment -- undid her, as did last spring's writers' strike. In her three-month absence from her typewriter, interim hirelings turned out the much-talked-about Ice Princess story. "The most convoluted, insipid, insane...crappy idea in the world," she says, shuddering.

Even as Elizabeth Taylor was on her way in, Pat Smith was on her way out, back to DAYS OF OUR LIVES. "It's totally true, 100 percent," says Ms. Smith of the story that Miss Taylor personally engineered the Luke-and-Laura nuptials. "She's a fan, you see. She wanted to be at the wedding. And the idea had already been scrapped. Everything is so capricious. You have a story conference every six weeks and things keep changing direction."

The wedding will kill GENERAL HOSPITAL, Miss Smith promises. "Stretch it out, stretch it out, never give them what they want, that's the whole art of daytime. The minute you get the kids married, well."

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