Michael E. Knight on Returning to Daytime as 'General Hospital's Martin Gray

Michael Maloney
Q&A ABC

Even though ABC has the rights to the characters from All My Children and One Life to Live once more, General Hospital opted to bring fan favorite Michael E. Knight onto the Port Charles canvas not as his beloved AMC character, Tad "the Cad" Martin, but rather as someone new.

The three-time Emmy-winner debuted earlier this week as attorney Martin Gray, an attorney who stands to make a lot of friends (not!) in town if he’s successful in helping scheming Nelle (Chloe Lanier) get paroled.

Knight’s set to air again on GH next week. In the meantime, check out his following chat with TV Insider in which we talked to him about what brought him back to soaps, theories about who his legal eagle character may (or may not) be related to, which GH star he’d like to work with, and what it was like sharing screen-time with Jennifer Bassey (ex-Marian, AMC).

When your casting was announced, people thought maybe Tad’s back? How’d your return to daytime come about?  

Michael E. Knight: At the risk of deflating everything, it’s a nothing burger. I wanted to work and friends encouraged me to reach out to Frank [Valentini, executive producer]. He was [my ex-wife] Catherine [Hickland, ex-Lindsay]’s boss for years in New York [on OLTL]. I asked him if he’s ever amenable to stunt casting – ‘Oh my Gosh, Michael Knight’s still alive!’ — to please consider me. He got back to me right away. He talked to [head writers] Chris Van Etten and Dan O’Connor. The stars aligned.

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I thought "Martin Gray" was a nod to Tad’s last name and the fact that I’ve been around! It was truly a limited character, someone already on the books. Everyone were taken aback by the fan response. Right now, Martin’s a blank slate. It depends on where they want to take him.

After one show, it appears that Martin has a few secrets. Do you create a backstory in your mind? What’s the process?

That’s a damned good question. Believe it or not that one day comes down to Chloe. I’ve been watching the show to get the lay of the land. [Nelle’s] the master manipulator. I asked her, "Where do you see this going?" Chloe said think [of Martin and Nelle as] two sharks circling each other. Our scene grew out of that. Also, Frank was on the studio floor when we were shooting. He came up to me and gave me [some nice direction]. He said to me, "You need a secret. We have an idea about something." I was the beneficiary of two talented people that day. Let’s face it, [Tad] was an open book. The chance to do somebody who has skeletons is great.

I read once that the actors reading for Tad was a "Who’s Who" of daytime. Who else tried out for that role?

I remember there being Vincent [Irizarry, Jordan, Bold and the Beautiful], Wally Kurth [Ned, GH; Justin, Days of Our Lives] and [the late] Perry Stephens [ex-Jack, Loving]. That was back in the day when it was a mass call. Seven or eight of us did tests with Marcy Walker (ex-Liza) and Kim Delaney (ex-Jenny). As the business is shrinking, the way people get in and migrate around is also different. The networks need actors who can produce at the pace they need and ones who understand the life. It was great starting out when I did because you got to learn and you were brought along in an organic way.

I was always really proud of Finn Wittrock [ex-Damon, AMC] who’s now in the Judy Garland movie [Judy]. He came to the show and it was sink or swim. Everyone remembers when I started that Tad was sleeping with Liza and her mother [Marian, played by Jennifer Bassey], but I had a whole year of working with other people and was brought along. Now, it’s, "Here’s what we need – go!"

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"Martin" is a nod to your AMC character. "Gray" is interesting because Laura’s (Genie Francis) birth dad is a man named "Gordon Gray." Hmm…

I was just alerted to that recently. It’s okay to have a nudge and a wink to the audience with names. Let’s face it. I look like Phil Donahue. The joke in my family is I look like a 6-foot cigarette butt [because of my hair color]. I have so much white hair I can’t color it anymore. Whatever I am, I am. I thought people know me as Tad Martin, but it’s not a nod to anyone else [as far as I know].

Let me say this – it’d be a surprise to me [if Martin and Laura were related], but I love Genie Francis. When she came to AMC [as Ceara Connor], after having been on GH, she was walking on water. She was the sweetest, kindest person. She was there for six months before I asked her what was it like being on GH during that era and what it was like working with [late legendary producer] Gloria Monty. Then, the network decided she was worth more as Laura. They pulled the plug on her character. I always felt kind of cheated by not getting to work with her. If I got the chance to work with Genie [here], I’d die a happy man.

Maura West (Ava), Genie Francis (Laura) and Kristina Wagner (Felicia) on General Hospital (ABC/ Michael Yada)

There are a finite number of last names. Fans recall everything, which is great.

Soaps are a very specific industry. We’re very easy to make fun of. Soaps deliver the mail at a dead run. It’s a head writer’s job to repackage and repurpose stories over and over again, but when people are as good at what they do as they are here [there’s nothing better]. I can’t describe how amazing soap audiences are. Daytime fans remember. The number of people who will correct me after I don’t recall something is amazing. Fans will say the year they started watching and they’ll know who I was working with when they started watching.

Where do you keep the three Daytime Emmys that you won for playing Tad?

One is in my garage. I broke a wing when I moved and I’ve been meaning to get it fixed. Another, I gave to my grandmother before she passed away and it made its way back to my parents’ home in Massachusetts. And Catherine has one, too.

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You’ve had many great co-stars, but let me ask you about Jennifer Bassey (ex-Marian, AMC). What was it like working with her?

God bless her. I will never forget her. She was funny and sexy as hell when we worked together. She was a comedienne and she was an original Playboy Bunny. One day, she said, "Darling, you’ve got to kiss me, pick me up, walk across the room and lay me down on this massage table." We practiced it for an hour so that I could do it with my eyes closed. She’s brilliant.

I remember getting the script in which Tad had to do one of his first fantasies. I’d been the skinniest kid in high school and the fantasy called for Tad to wear a bathing suit and throw money up in the air like confetti. I argued, fought, and scraped, saying I didn’t want go on national TV in a Speedo. I was just not there. I lost the fight. Jennifer came over, hugged me, kissed me on the forehead and said, "Darling, you’ll be fine." There’s something about someone giving a well-placed piece of kindness. You never forget that.

Jennifer Bassey and Michael E. Knight on All My Children in 1983 (Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)

Any tidbits of what’s next for Martin?

There are shows coming up but it’s anybody’s guess as to what’s going to happen. I can’t wait to open the scripts to see what happens next. They might be thinking, "If Michael’s going to be sticking around, what family is he involved with? Where can he help us out?"

Age is also a factor. I remember never getting used to the part of the job that was taking off my shirt. Cameron [Mathison, ex-Ryan, AMC] used to take off his shirts so much that they stopped putting buttons on them. They had snaps. His nickname was "Snaps." Luckily, I’m not there anymore. We’ll see where they can use me here. Anything is gravy. Frank is the hero of this piece.

General Hospital, Weekdays, ABC