Not many TV shows can boast a spot in the "Guinness Book of World Records," but "General Hospital" is not just any show (especially nowadays, with the decimation of so many longtime daytime dramas); it's the longest-running American soap opera of all time and the third-longest-running drama. It's also won more Daytime Emmys for Outstanding Drama Series than any other program. More than that, it's been beloved by millions of viewers over its 50-year run (its first episode aired on April 1, 1963).
Executive producer Frank Valentini, head writer Ron Carlivati, and some of the show's biggest stars (Jane Elliot, Jason Thompson, Finola Hughes, Jacklyn Zeman, Genie Francis, Laura Wright, Maurice Benard, Kristina Wagner, Kirsten Storms, and Kimberly McCullough) gathered at the Paley Center in Los Angeles, Calif. to discuss the iconic soap, what 50 years in Port Charles means to them, and what's to come.
1. From "One Life to Live" to "General Hospital"
Both Valentini and Carlivati moved from the now-canceled "One Life to Live" to "General Hospital" in 2012, breathing new life into the series and exciting devotees with fresh storylines. And Carlivati is no fair-weather fan: He's been watching the show since he was 10: "I think it was when Laura killed David Hamilton when I started watching." Not to mention that the first time he saw a couple in bed, it was Rick and Monica. (Of course, he had no idea what they were doing, he joked.) "All those stories are still ingrained in me. It's been incredible as a fan and now being a writer," he said. Why does he feel that his style of writing resonates with fans? "Because I write from a fan's perspective."
2. Tribute to John Bernadino
If you watched the 50th-anniversary-special episodes, you probably saw the portrait of John Bernadino hanging in the background. Well, the tribute to late actor, who played Dr. Steven Hardy on the series, continued at the Paley Center celebration: His wife, Marjorie, was in the audience, and she received a round of applause.
3. More past stars?
The 50th-anniversary episodes were chock-full of tributes to the most memorable past moments and past stars (including Luke and Laura!). Now that the anniversary has come and gone, do Valentini and Carlivati plan to incorporate some of these memorable faces on a more regular basis? Carlivati admitted that trying to balance a large cast is difficult, as is making plots seem natural (even in a soap setting): "I want it not to feel like a stunt or trick." But he didn't rule it out, as long as the characters can be woven genuinely into the story.
4. Back from the dead
"General Hospital" is notorious for bringing back characters from the dead. So much so that Geary didn't even remember that Luke had died and returned at one point -- leaving the panel and the audience laughing. Why revive so many seemingly deceased characters? "We do it because they're characters we love so much," Carlivati said, "even though it's a soap cliché." He elaborated, saying that it's also part of living out the fantasy of someone you love coming back -- bringing up the iconic moment when fans all believed Laura was dead and then Luke saw her. "I can remember leaning on the floor watching that moment" as a kid, Carlivati said. "I think the audience loves those returns. But you can't do it all the time. … Sometimes, deaths have to stick."
What about Robin Scorpio's return? Carlivati said that her death seemed so dismal, and coming from a show that was canceled, it felt wrong. He added that soap audiences had undergone so many blows that he wanted to provide some optimism: "It wasn’t a great message to have [Robin] die. So she's still out there."
5. Remembering the HIV storyline
McCullough was only 16 when she was presented with the HIV storyline for her character, Robin Scorpio -- and that was in the 1990s, when the topic was just beginning to gain attention. What does she think now, looking back on that important event? "I didn't really know what it meant. I just knew it was really important. … Not only to entertain but to make a difference in people's lives," she said, adding that she was thankful for not catching any flack from her manager or agent. "I was excited to be challenged. I grew up a lot." The most important part of it for McCullough, though, was when fans reached out to her saying that the HIV storyline had helped them to accept family members.
A look back a the best moments from "General Hospital" weddings:
6. Code names
These days, leaked storylines are commonplace; it's hard to keep secrets on set. That's a particularly challenging obstacle for soap operas, where plots endlessly hinge on massive twists, turns, and cliffhangers. So how do "General Hospital's" writers and producers keep things on the down-low? Code names, of course! Carlivati confessed that they use a ton of aliases in the writers' room. Even the writers often get confused, asking, "Who is this?"
Some of the code names they divulged: Brenda is Mildred, Nicholas was Francis, Bobby was Betty, and Ethan was Solomon. Sometimes, these code names made it into the script, causing a whole different problem.
7. What really happened between Geary and Elizabeth Taylor?
When an audience member asked Geary and Francis how it was having Elizabeth Taylor on set in 1981, Francis coyly let Geary field that question. It's been rumored that he and Taylor had a fling, and he even admitted at one point that he was her boy toy. But he's never really said much more. "It was a pleasure to have her on the show," he said, joking that he was glad he had added "on the show" to that sentence. In all seriousness, he said, "she was so much fun when she first came on; she wanted to do the show." He remembered one particular incident about her first day on set; she kept mispronouncing Cassadine, and after messing up 14 takes, she said, "I'm sorry, folks, I'm just not used to acting." "She had a great sense of humor," Geary said.
8. He might even write a book about it!
Do you want to know more about Geary and Taylor's oh-so-secret romance? You might find out … some day. When asked if he'd ever write a book about his life, he said, "Oh, yes! I'm waiting for a few more people to die."
9. Memories of those who have passed
"General Hospital" has had several stars pass away over the years, and some panel members recalled a few of their fondest memories of these soap greats.
Geary had nothing but heartfelt words about John Ingle (Edward Quartermaine), who passed away in 2012. "He could not have been more generous or kind when I [Luke] became more central. I've learned from that," Geary said, adding that whenever Luke was moved to the back burner, he was as kind to those moving to the front burner as John had been to him. "I think about John every day. I think about how kind he was. How solid he was. How the show hinged on him, and how he handled that," Geary said.
About Anna Lee (Lila Quartermaine), who died in 2004, Elliot said, "She lived and breathed her work. ... The studio was her life to her." Elliot said that Lee was still asking for more stories on her way to the grave.
Geary called Norma Connolly (Aunt Ruby) -- who died in 1998 -- an amazing woman, politically active, savvy, and smart. "She brought all of that edge to Ruby. To Jackie and I, she truly was motherly. She was a dear, dear friend, and I Ioved her," he said.
10. What's on the horizon for "General Hospital"?
Well, first of all, Valentini is a vault, never allowing Carlivati to hint at any upcoming events. (Got to keep those fans tuning in!) But Carlivati did divulge that he has a "fantasy of filling the Quartermaine mansion full of people. … It's such an important family. When I came in, they'd been decimated. That's my goal -- reviving that family as much as I can."