Anthony Geary Leaves ‘General Hospital’ With All Guns Blazing
Mobster. Rapist. Alcoholic. Serial killer. Split-personality psychotic. How did a guy with a profile like that become the most enduring and beloved hero in American soap opera? On July 27, the unexplainable phenomenon that is Luke Spencer will depart ABC’s General Hospital right along with Anthony Geary, the actor who created the character in 1978 and played him to an unprecedented eight Emmy awards. Of course, it’s not like Geary to go gentle into that good night. The reluctant icon, who has fled Hollywood and moved to Amsterdam, gave us a frank, slash-and-burn summation of his time in Port Charles—the good, the bad and the unforgivable. Luke and Laura fans, proceed with caution!
You’ve always been an unsentimental cuss when it comes to GH—in fact, you were once in favor of killing off Luke Spencer by suicide—yet there were reports that you got a little weepy on your final day on the set. True?
Yes, I was a bit emotional, but I assure you it had nothing to do with it being my last day as Luke. I was very happy about that. What was tugging at my heart was the people. I was saying goodbye to folks who are so very dear to me, some of whom I’ve spent half my life with. That’s the hard part.
What can you spill about Luke’s exit?
He says goodbye to his old pal Sonny [Maurice Benard] on the dock and then disappears into the fog, hoping to go find himself and figure out what he’s going to do with the rest of his life. [Laughs] Which I think the writers ripped off from me.
What will you do with the rest of your life?
After 35 years, it’s hard to separate fiction from reality, so the first thing I did was cut off my hair and shave and try to physically shed this character. Then I flew to Amsterdam and, within two days, started feeling a bit odd, as if there was something I should be doing, like emailing the studio to get my next script or swimming or bicycling so I can stay in shape for the show. Then it hit me. I don’t have to do a damn thing! I am free! I got myself into a 10-week course at the University of Amsterdam on Dutch theater history and literature. I’ve also been doing quite a bit of writing lately. And I have not retired from acting. Just from GH.
Have you also retired from the Emmys, or will you submit yourself for this year’s work? The flashback episode where Luke killed his parents could bring you a ninth award.
I’m not like Oprah and Ellen, who took themselves out of the running after winning so many times. [Laughs] I don’t have their unyielding good taste. If nominated, I will happily be at the awards. I do not take those trophies lightly, because every one of my wins was for extraordinary and very meaningful material. I never think it’s in the bag. I’ve lost as many Emmys as I’ve won, so I don’t get nervous anymore because I know how to lose gracefully. It’s better to win, of course. But if I don’t, I can get through the evening without shooting myself or biting down on a cyanide capsule.
In sending you off, GH head writer Ron Carlivati undid two epic events. Mob don Frank Smith, who was killed by Luke, came back from the dead and so did Luke’s grandson Jake, whom Luke accidentally slaughtered in a car accident. How’d you feel about that revisionist history?
I loved that they brought back Emma Samms [Holly], Genie Francis [Laura], Jonathan Jackson [Lucky] and Nathan Parsons [Ethan] so I could work with them one last time, but I did not like the conceit that brought us all together. It was ill-conceived, cheesy and showed a lack of imagination. We saw Luke shoot Frank in the back over 20 years ago. And by the way, that character was old then. He would have been in his hundreds by now.
The audience saw that little boy dead on the operating table, and his organs were harvested. I do not understand the value of disassembling two of the best stories we’ve told. I guess the point of bringing the child back from the dead was so Luke could be redeemed, but I never felt he needed that. I hate redemption. I’m sure there are audience members who didn’t want him to be a child killer and so they’re pleased, which is fine. But I was not thrilled.
Do you think maybe you should have left the show after the revelation that Luke murdered his parents?
I would agree that was the better choice, but I would have hated to miss my final scenes with Jonathan Jackson. I don’t mind telling you that, for our last episodes together, Jonathan and I sat in my dressing room for two nights in a row, well into the night, and we deconstructed the scenes we’d been given, and it was an incredibly creative, collaborative experience. Without changing the writer’s intention, we tried to bring to the fore what the audience knows about Luke and Lucky’s relationship, because it just wasn’t on the page. I feel our work it resulted in some of the best moments Jonathan and I have shared on screen. And that’s saying a lot, because we’ve had many. The boy is extraordinary and a true artist. He lives like an artist. He can’t get enough of this world. He is so curious and alive. A real Renaissance man and I so admire him. For that selfish reason, I am glad we ended the way we did.
You were the only daytime star with a clause in your contract allowing you to rewrite dialogue. Did that create friction with the writers and producers?
Sure, here and there, but I always won because I’m a mean bastard and I’d just say, “F— it! Fire me!” Some have tried to get that clause out of there, like [former executive producer] Wendy Riche, who never much cared for me. One time she said, “I’ve got a collection of balls in my office, and yours are going up on the wall.” I said, “Well, Wendy, if you want my balls, you’re gonna need a bigger office!” After all my years with this character, I’m not about to let some new hire tell me how Luke would express an idea or an emotion, and I traded money for that. I bypassed salary increases in order to hold on to my right to fix the scripts and to be able to take breaks from the show and live for long stretches in Amsterdam. In the end, I have less money, but I am much richer for having those priorities. I’ll tell you one thing I won’t miss.
What would that be?
Being told how to do my job. Acting is an interpretive art and that’s really forgotten on our show, where the actors are expected to be slavishly devoted to the stage directions in the script. I get scripts where I’m literally told where to take a deep breath and what line to cry on and when to turn my body. Sometimes the writer’s stage directions are longer than the scenes themselves. The great playwrights don’t do that. They trust their material. They don’t feel the need to tell actors how they’re supposed to be feeling at every moment. There’s a mistrust of actors on our show, as if we’re going to misunderstand the material. To be told to weep on a certain line is absurd. I don’t know when the hell I’m going to weep, if I weep at all, until I’m actually playing the scene. You don’t plan that s—t out! In all modesty, Jane Elliot [Tracy] and I have 90 years of professional acting experience between us and for us to be handed a scene where we are told how to read every line is insulting. Now, she and I will just laugh it off and get on with the damn scene, but I feel bad for the younger ones because it can thwart any creative moments they might have. Any real moments. We should be spontaneous and thinking on our feet, not acting by rote. I love actors. I love doing a scene with someone who throws me a curveball. I love the process and have fought for it always. If you must write this way, then go write a novel. In a novel, the author tells the readers everything a character is thinking and feeling and doing. But not in theater or film or TV. No, that’s just weak writing.
How did it go down when you told Jane you were leaving the show?
She was the first person to know and the first to say, “Go!” She was the most supportive person at the studio. She knows me better than anyone else and knew that I had made the right choice.
As your longtime love interest, she had the most to lose.
She was completely selfless in that regard. [Laughs] Although she has since called me a “bastard” and a “s—t” for leaving her behind. She and I Skyped just yesterday. We are the best Skype gossip buddies. Jane remains the most underused genius in daytime television, and that’s such a mystery to me. I think they’re being foolish not to let her lead GH, make her the head of the mafia or something. It’s such a waste of a great character, a great legacy and a fabulous actress.
There’s a mini-scandal we need to address—that recent scene in which Holly didn’t seem to know Luke’s cousin, Bill, which made no sense since Bill and Holly were once romantic. Emma Samms later confessed to the outraged fans on Twitter that you two had changed the script. Is this the downside of working with the guy who can rewrite his dialogue?
Emma is about as uncontroversial as a person can be, and as sweet as they come, and would never do anything to cause any kind of distress. I will cop to being responsible for the script change because we were about to do the scene and Emma said, “Did Holly know Bill?” She didn’t remember it and I didn’t remember it, so I changed the line. The fault was all mine and I grovel in mortification. A thousand apologies.
What else won’t you miss at GH?
Being in a part of the industry where an actor’s resume is less important than how he looks with his shirt off or how many Facebook followers he has. That is abhorrent to me, and I think that’s part of why there is so little respect for us. If you don’t work out at the gym, they’ll replace you, because there’s always somebody with bigger pecs or someone whose Twitter account is more active. Or if you speak truth to power, you are replaced because you are considered a problem. Again, I feel bad for the young ones. They don’t have a clue how to survive in this rat-infested jungle.
What was the high point of your time at GH?
There were two, really. I will always treasure working with Elizabeth Taylor [the original Helena Cassadine] and the incredible friendship that came out of that. I can still hear her bawdy laugh! I loved that I could make her laugh, which was one of the biggest joys in my life. I am always amazed when I catch an old movie of hers or read some of my old journal entries that I got to know her so well. After all this time, it still feels surreal.
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Nobody was more famous. Tell us something surprising about her, something we don’t know.
Let me think. [Long silence] I was with Elizabeth [in 1981] the morning she got the call that Natalie Wood had died. Natalie had been like a younger sister to her during the old studio days and they adored each other. Elizabeth really fell apart that morning and I was privy to the rawest emotions I think I’ve ever witnessed in a human being. Elizabeth was the best friend anybody could have. She would stand by you no matter what. Look at how she stood by Michael Jackson! And I will never forget her sobbing in my arms and saying, “Why do all the good people have to die and I go on…and on?” I was so thrown by that. There was nothing I could say. Had I been older and wiser, I would have reminded her how incredibly good she had been in this world. She did so much for so many people, even beyond AMFAR and the AIDS crisis. She and Richard Burton built hospitals in Mexico and Botswana. Her contribution was staggering. She was bigger than life, yet there was a sweet little girl inside that one could not help but love and want to protect. [He starts to choke up]. Now we have to stop. Not the interview, the topic. Because this is making me emotional. Let’s talk about something else.
Of course. You mentioned there were two high points at GH?
Yes. And then there was Gloria Monty, the executive producer who hired me. When she asked me to do 13 weeks as Luke Spencer, I said, “I hate soap operas.” Gloria said, “I do, too, honey. And we’re gonna change ’em!” And damn it, she did. Under Gloria, the show went from little scenes of nurses gossiping over coffee in the hospital cafeteria to something big and adventurous and dangerous. And the show was saved from cancellation.
I already know the answer to this but I still have to ask. Could Gloria have survived in today’s soap world?
She was radical and that’s exactly what daytime needs—a new, radical approach—if it is to continue. But if Gloria came along now, I doubt a network would hire her because everyone is too frightened. She believed that our job in soap opera was to entertain and confound. She saw it as a higher calling, rather than just producing pabulum for the masses. Well, you just don’t see that anymore, though I will say that [current GH executive producer] Frank Valentini is the best on-set producer I’ve worked with since Gloria. But I doubt daytime will ever see another one with Gloria’s courage. She also had no other life. She devoted herself to GH. Frank does the same. He has Herculean energy and is on the set from the first scene to the last. I have no beef with Frank. From the day he arrived he has been respectful and honorable to me. He always listened to me, heard what I wanted or didn’t want, and tried his best to accommodate that. And that’s all I’ve ever wanted. You don’t need to agree with me. You don’t need to give me my way. I just want to be heard. I think the problems were always more with the writer than with Frank, although the writer and I have never spoken.
We’ve sat at the same table at the Emmys and what not, but he never has anything to say to me.
So we know your high points. What was the low point of your run at GH?
I just get really tired of the whole Luke-and-Laura thing. I think Genie would tell you the same. We’ve both been dragging the corpse of that relationship around for 30 years. I was able to insist on moving away from it, but being hyphenated as Luke-and-Laura has been a real pain in my ass. It irritated me that, no matter what I did on the show, no matter how many Emmys I won, I could never unhitch from that. Every time I was introduced anywhere in the last 33 years, they’d run the clip of that f—ing wedding. It’s like having your high school graduation picture dragged out. [Laughs] Nobody wants that! And yes, this is a guy who is biting the hand that has fed him. I fully understand that. I think at age 68 I’m allowed to say these things, and certainly now that I am no longer under contract.
Luke-and-Laura loyalists don’t want to hear this. You know that, right?
I am aware of that. I am grateful that the fans have enjoyed Luke and Laura, but I’ve always felt that a good performance is all I owe them. I’m a bit of an anomaly and a dinosaur in that sense. Acting is not supposed to be about being popular and pleasing everybody. No art is. And yes, I am still naïve enough to think that acting—even in a soap opera—can be art.
What was your worst experience as a soap heartthrob?
Back in the early ’80s, I was doing the lead role in Jesus Christ Superstar at a theater in the round in Sacramento, and for the end of the crucifixion they had rigged a cross to fly me up the aisle and into a fog. I had just given what I thought was a fairly good performance—though vocally I was out of my depth, I was really into it—and my cross got about four rows up the aisle when a woman in the audience looked at me and said, “Hey, Luke, where’s Laura?” And so there were two deaths that night. First Jesus, then me, the second being the most painful. But that’s showbiz, isn’t it? When you think about problems, that’s about as petty as it gets. Oh, poor me! People remember Luke and Laura. Boo hoo. I feel like an absolute t–t complaining about it. But there you have it. I have almost, but not quite, come to grips with the fact that my obituary is going to read: “Anthony Geary, Luke of Luke-and-Laura, died today.”
It’s no secret you and Genie didn’t always get along.
She’s always been a wonderful actress and a supreme professional. We’ve had our ups and downs. There’s no harm in saying that. It was a stormy marriage, on screen and off. But this last time together was absolutely lovely.
She recently gave an interview to TV Line saying she was surprised you wanted her back.
Genie was surprised that I was willing to work with her? Really? Wow. OK. I wonder who she’s been talking to. You know, there are very few great teams that last as long as the fans want them to. Astaire and Rogers. Abbott and Costello. Martin and Lewis. They rarely end well. It’s a struggle. And the audience can be so fickle. When they want something and they get it, then they don’t want it anymore. We have to keep taking them to places they never imagined going. I do think indulging in this back and forth with the unhappy fans on Twitter just feeds the flames. We used to have qualified publicity people who would respond to that sort of thing. Now you have actors and producers and writers going directly to the audience to defend themselves which is, if nothing else, without dignity. I just don’t see any good coming from it. We used to lead the fans. Now we run after them like puppies hoping to be taken home.
Any chance you’ll come back to GH for a little visit some day?
[Laughs] After this interview, I don’t think that’s a possibility. But if it ever happened it couldn’t be as a stunt or to rock Lulu’s newest baby. There are too many variables. Where will I be? Where will the show be? Who will be writing? I think I timed this just right.
None. I chose my battles as carefully as I could. There was a time when I was drunk or on drugs and made bad choices, but it was the ’80s. We all have to forgive ourselves for anything done in the ’80s. [Laughs] And I wasn’t the only one acting out back then.
Would you do it all over again?
Of course. I have loved every minute of it. Even the minutes I have hated, I have loved. I made a smart move joining GH and then hanging on doggedly through the bad times, bullying my way to the top. Or the middle. Or wherever this is. I had a character that was mythic and wildly unique and the best they had to offer in television. I am really, really fortunate.
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