TV Guide -- October 16, 1993.

Return Engagement
Luke & Laura, the soap sweethearts of the century, are back AGAIN

By Michael Logan
As General Hospital's Luke and Laura--the hottest, hippest lovers in the history of soaps--actors Anthony Geary and Genie Francis once took the country by storm.  Now they're about to find out if lightning strikes twice.

On Oct. 29, the darling duo--now the parents of a 10-year-old boy but still on the run after all these years--will make a budget- busting return to ABC's General Hospital, complete with explosions, car chases, helicopters, parachutes, mobsters, catacombs, and a very deadly waterfall, all shot on location in upstate New York.  In other words, exactly the kind of larger-than-life Luke-and-Laura adventure that brought soap-watching out of the closet and sent the nearly canceled GH zooming to the top of the Nielsens back in the late 1970s.

But what about that lightning?  Well, if truth be told, Geary and Francis don't really expect it to strike again.  Frankly, they don't even want it to.  "The first time around, people were screaming and pulling their hair out like we were the Beatles or something," recalls the 31-year-old Francis, who, pleading exhaustion, quit GH in 1981 at the peak of Luke-and-Laura fever.  "I don't believe we could ever again become that kind of crazy, media-blitz phenomenon."

"And," adds Geary, 46, "I wouldn't be coming back as Luke if I thought that kind of hysteria was possible. There was a time when I wasn't able to leave my house.  I don't think that the price will be as great this time.  There are more than enough 25-year-old hunks around for them to scream about."

But Geary and Francis still have great expectations.  After all, the Luke-and-Laura partnership --which started with a rape and ended at the altar--was always one for the record books.  More than 30 million viewers tuned in to witness their "I do's" in November of 1981, making it the most-watched soap event ever.  The ceremony was so monumental that even Elizabeth Taylor--one of the show's biggest fans--showed up as the high-camp widow of Luke's archenemy.

While a Newsweek cover story in '81 noted that aesthetes would find the Luke-and-Laura saga to be a "trashy, electronic comic strip," it proclaimed that, for GH loyalists, the tale "smacks of nothing less than Tolstoy adapted by Fellini, with Redford and Streisand in the leads."

Of course, Geary never saw himself as much of a Redford--"I've always been a pariah in this medium," he claims.  "I don't have the looks of a soap-opera leading man, and I don't have the insides, either"-- and the edgy, emotional Francis was far from a funny girl.  Having landed the gut-wrenching Laura Webber role at age 14, the actress literally grew up on the GH sound stage.  She played full-blown love scenes long before she'd ever been kissed in real life; in one particularly kinky plot, loosely based on the notorious Lana Turner/Johnny Stompanato scandal, Laura accidentally killed the lover she shared with her mother.

Eventually, Francis found herself too busy for a personal life at all.  After five years on the front burner, she took a hike soon after the Luke-and-Laura nuptials.  Revitalized by a breather, she then waltzed right into her own series, NBC's short-lived Bare Essence, and later costarred with future husband Jonathan Frakes (Cmdr. Ryker on Star Trek: The Next Generation) in the Civil War miniseries North and South and its 1986 sequel, North and South: Book II.  (Both will appear in yet another sequel, the upcoming Heaven and Hell.)  But daytime TV, she soon discovered, is really where it's at.  "Having known nothing but soaps, I left them thinking prime time just had to be more fun and exciting...but it is not," says Francis with a weary laugh.  After quickie returns to GH in 1983 and '84, she signed onto Days of Our Lives in 1987 as newspaper reporter Diana Colville.  Three years later, she was back in the ABC fold as incest victim Ceara Connor on All My Children.

Anthony Geary--who won a 1982 Daytime Emmy as Outstanding Actor--was equally anxious to put GH behind him.  He left the show in 1984, then--rather than accept one of several offers to join a prime-time soap--tried to bury his alter ego by taking a series of quirky character roles on stage and in independent films.  In 1990, Gloria Monty (the powerhouse executive producer responsible for teaming Luke and Laura) was seduced back to GH, and she in turn got Geary to rejoin the show by offering him a million-dollar contract and a rock-solid promise that he wouldn't have to play Luke.  Geary dyed his blond hair red, donned a pair of brown contact lenses to cover up his baby blues, and created the role of Luke's look-alike cousin Bill Eckert--a guy who wound up making some soap-opera history of his own.  When first introduced, Bill was portrayed as a mysterious, brooding seaman.  But as the door of the GH writers' office began to revolve, he changed character almost as often as he changed underwear.  The seaman (who eventually went blond) blossomed into a wholesome, upstanding family man right out of Father Knows Best, then--in a rather quick succession--he became a shark-fighting swashbuckler; a wealthy, Noel Coward-ish bon vivant; and, last, an unkempt, two-timing, alcoholic pig. Though well-acted by Geary at every turn, the metamorphoses stand as some of the most confusing--and unpleasant--in daytime memory.

"A lot of people have found Bill unsuccessful--but I don't," says Geary, who will briefly play Bill and Luke until the former is written out for good.  "It was a battle getting there, but we finally found out who he was--a man who lives in quiet desperation and is much too existential for the soap medium.  But I don't think there's anything to apologize for.  I would never consider the success of a character to be gauged by his popularity with the audience."  Still, there's an unmistakable sense that the 2-year struggle has left Geary mad as hell and desperate for the creative high that Luke Spencer once gave him.  "Anger is a great motivator of mine," he says.  "I just don't want to fade out--I want to burn out.  I want to go out with a Viking funeral."

Thus the decision to resurrect Luke.  Though whispered about for years, the Luke-and-Laura reunion only became official last spring, after Geary and Francis (who'd seen each other just twice since playing the roles) held extensive creative discussions with ABC brass and GH's current executive producer, Wendy Riche.

"None of us had any desire to duplicate the past--and we don't need to," says Riche.  "The chemistry between Tony and Genie is still magical, and the audience will still respond to the unconditional love between the characters because that kind of emotional bond is a rarity--in soaps and in life."

Geary, in tandem with Irene Suver, a Washington-based writer and long-time pal, concocted the plot that will bring Luke and Laura back to Port Charles.  But the stars' enthusiasm for the comeback really soared when ABC fired virtually the entire GH writing team in August and hired Claire Labine, the eight-time Emmy winning writer/producer who co-created ABC's landmark soap Ryan's Hope.  "The minute Claire was involved," says Geary, "I let out a deep breath and relaxed.  I knew we'd be OK."

Not that there aren't still trepidations aplenty.  "If we weren't terrified, we'd be insane," laughs Labine, who sees the Luke-and-Laura partnership not as a show-biz phenomenon, but as "two old and dear friends whom we deeply loved but lost.  Now they're coming home again--and in that context it's much less terrifying for us all."

Through thick and thin, Luke, the madcap iconoclast, and Laura, the passionate earth angel, were always each other's life jacket.  Now, that sentiment is echoed by the stars in real life.  Says Francis: "I have never, ever, had an acting partnership that was as safe, as full, and as exciting as the one I had with Tony. I didn't want to go through life without having a chance to taste it again."

And Geary (who has once again permed his hair to achieve, as he puts it, "the Bozo look") says he would "never have brought back Luke without Laura, because she defines him.  His feelings, his life, are all about her.  I had so closed the door on Luke that there was a point when I couldn't even remember who he was.  But when I sat down with Genie again, and looked at her and touched her and smelled her, it all came back.  I can't do it without her."