The Paley Center honored General Hospital’s historic 50th anniversary with the panel “General Hospital: Celebrating 50 Years and Looking Forward,” moderated by TV Guide’s William Keck.
Executive producer Frank Valentini, along with head writer Ron Carlivati and GH cast members Tony Geary, Jane Elliot, Jason Thompson, Kimberly McCullough, Finola Hughes, Genie Francis, John J. York, Kirsten Storms, Maurice Benard, Laura Wright, Jacklyn Zeman, participated in the event, which was simulcast online at the Paley Center website. Keck’s panel left the both audience and actors giddy and energized. “Maybe they’re not gonna cancel us after all,” mused Carlivati.
“I looked at General Hospital as a brand with remarkable equity,” Frank Valentini explained regarding his and his team’s perspective on taking the helm of the legendary drama. “And it’s our job to mine it.’
During the panel, it was evident many regard Carlivati and Valentini as the saviors of General Hospital. After fifty years of romance, infidelity, weddings, funerals, hookups and breakups, GH was gasping for breath when the former One Live To Live show runners were installed to take over. One Life and All My Children had been cancelled, replaced at the time by two talk/cooking shows – The Revolution and The Chew. And on Carlivati’s first day on set, beloved legacy character Robin Scorpio was set to be blown up in her own lab. “Was it something I said?” Carlivati remembered thinking.
Just over a year later, the show is celebrating its Golden Anniversary with a plethora of returning fan favorites, callback storylines, and the long-awaited return of the Nurses Ball, which grabbed the soap its highest ratings in women aged 25-54 during the week of April 1; the Friday kickoff to the Ball itself set a 6-week high in women viewers aged 18-49 – a key demographic. The show was also the fifth most tweeted series on television and had over 2 million hits on the ABC website.
Meanwhile, One Life to Live and All My Children have been resurrected online via Prospect Park’s The Online Network and will premiere on April 29.
True to soap mythology – ‘dead’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘dead’.
Like everyone else in the room, a lot of the actors on stage Friday at the Paley Center grew up watching General Hospital.
Both Jackie Zeman and Jane Elliot remembered watching Emily McLaughlin (Jessie Brewer) when they were kids, and feeling awed when they found themselves on a soundstage with her – as colleagues.
“I remember being on my knees on the carpet,” head writer Ron Carlivati recalled watching the show as a kid. “The first time I saw a couple in bed was Rick and Monica. I didn’t know what that meant,” he admitted, to hearty laughter from the audience, “but it seemed important.”
It’s that lifelong familiarity with the characters that lends an authenticity as well as energy to his storytelling – along with a touch of bumptiousness – and has been a large part of the remarkable turnaround GH has seen in the past fifteen months. “I like to think I write at a fan’s perspective,” Carlivati remarked.
Actor Chad Duell (who was in the front row), remarked that he was horrified of the Nurses Ball’s Striptease. “I was freaking out.”
The cast mentioned Valentini’s uncanny adeptness at keeping secrets on a show that is notorious for its spoiler leaks. “It’s very easy with threats,” deadpanned the producer.
A funny exchange occurred when discussion shifted to how many times and how many ways characters have bitten the dust, only to rise again with even better hair.
“If I drank some water, it would pour out of the (bullet) holes,” joked Maurice Benard, who plays mob boss/coffee magnate Sonny Corinthos – a man who has been marked for death more times than Carlos the Jackal.
Finola Hughes snorted. “I blew up in a boat. Beat that.”
But then Kimberly McCullough, who played Robin Scorpio from age seven, laid down the challenge. “I blew up in lab.” TV husband Jason Thompson reminded everyone that Robin had been blown up “beyond recognition”, which made everyone laugh.
“Luke was even dead for a while,” Jane Elliot remembered.
Geary looked startled. “Was he?!” The audience erupted.
The soap opera staple penchant of Nobody dies! Nobody Ever Dies! is well known, though not always well-loved. Carlivati referenced the famous line from Soapdish, when Whoopi Goldberg’s head writer is tasked with resurrecting a headless character – “He doesn’t have a head!” she screamed in frustration.
Carlivati shrugged, chuckling. “That doesn’t really stop us.” He also pointed out the aspect of wish fulfillment in bringing a loved one back that is desperately missed, and understanding the hope they’ll one day simply walk right back in the door again. “I’ve lived that moment.”
All Those Who Wander
The show made history with groundbreaking storylines; Stone Cates’ heartrending HIV saga, Robin’s infection with the virus and the fallout from both were unheard of at the time. The show received hundreds of letters from families living with the virus, thanking them for telling the story with such stark honesty.
McCullough, who Hughes referred to as her hero, was just sixteen years old at the time. She remembered how the story impacted the actors as much as the viewers. . “I didn’t really know what it meant,” she said. “But I knew it was important. I grew up a lot.”
Benard added, “The beauty of that story was – soaps can take it from the first day to the end. No other medium can do that.” He remembered Michael Sutton, who played Stone, being incredibly nervous as a novice actor his first day on the job, and watching him “learn to act his way to an Emmy nomination by the end.”
John J. York (Mac Scorpio aka Everybody’s Dad) agreed that the story was huge. “We cried real tears. The emotions were real.”
Who Are You?
One of the more titillating – and exciting – new elements of what (most) fans affectionately call the “Cartini” regime is its unfailing mission to surprise the viewers and put a lockdown on spoilers. Over the last year, fans have delighted in the delivery of “Did NOT see that coming!” moments, from plot twists to surprise character reveals.
It hasn’t been easy, but what Valentini hasn’t done with outright threats, Carlivati makes up for in false identities – giving those characters he wants kept secret aliases so that nobody—not even the cast—knows who they are. Brenda was “Mildred”, Nikolas was “Francis”, and Richard Simmons was “Ricardo S”.
“And Faison was ‘Bob’. That was a Twin Peaks shout out,” he admitted sheepishly. But inevitably, confusion trickled through the ranks. “I had writers coming to me and going, ‘Who is this?”
The actors weren’t immune, either. Jane Elliot (Tracey Quartermaine) recalled with exasperation learning the wrong names in the script. “We’d memorize the codenames!” Geary remembered asking at one point, “Who the hell is Solomon?!”
Elliot also had some trepidation with the idea of Tracy backing up Epiphany in a musical number at the Nurses Ball. “Tracy would never do that!” she pleaded to Ron and Frank, begging them to let her out of it. No dice.
“You’re doing it.” She remembers them saying, and resigning herself to her fate. At the end of the day, though, it’s worth it. “It is a blessing to be an actor. And my job is to give life to the words he (Carlivati) puts on paper.”
Into the West
Some leavings are real, though; the late John Berardino (Steve Hardy) was the show’s anchor for over thirty years, and his wife Marjorie and daughter Catherine were in Friday’s audience. Tony Geary told the story of how Berardino took time to give him advice and counsel on surviving soaps for the long haul. “He could not have been more generous,” Geary said. Now he does his best to emulate Berardino’s graciousness, supporting up-and-coming actors who find themselves in the front stories.
Norma Connolly, who played the indomitable, earthy, compassionate Spencer matriarch Aunt Ruby was, he said, “Very politically active. Very smart. She brought all of that edge to Ruby. She was a dear, dear friend, and I loved her.”
David Lewis, who played Quartermaine patriarch/pain in the ass Edward from 1978-1993, was remembered by Elliot as a loving, generous performer.
“When you can elevate the level of someone else’s work, that’s the mark of a great actor,” she said. “And that was David Lewis.”
Losing John Ingle was equally devastating to cast and fans, but everyone loved the final shot of Edward and Lila ascending the iconic Quartermaine staircase at the end. Carlivati gave credit to director Bill Ludel for that poignant image. “They may be gone, but the relish lives on,” he said. And he hopes to revive the family and fill the house again, remembering that as one of the staples of the show when he watched it growing up.
Characters have gone through evolution, devolution, and in some cases, more than one recast. Laura Wright is now playing the third incarnation of Carly Corinthos, and has more than made the part her own. Emme Rylan, just taking over as Lulu Spencer, was greeted with warm applause from both cast and audience, and Genie Francis revealed she had wanted to play Rylan’s mother when they were both on The Young and the Restless.
As for her own character, Laura Spencer, Francis believes she is much stronger than she has been in years. “She’s had to rebuild. She’s going to live her life for herself,” Francis said. “But there’s still room for evolution.”
And with what Cartini have done so far, and what they indicate they plan to do? Evolution seems to be the overall strategy. Valentini is on set every day; one of the most hands-on producers in television, cheer leading, directing, encouraging – and threatening. Carlivati toils with his scribes, spinning out new stories and surprises for the coming months and even years. While paying homage to the past, they are also laying the foundation for new futures.
Additional editing by Omar White-Nobles