The most recognized soap opera ingénue of her era, actress Genie Francis shot to superstardom as the beautiful, flaxen-haired female half of Luke & Laura on the legendary ABC soap, “General Hospital.” As such, Francis (alongside her equally famous co-star, Anthony Geary), gave birth to American soap opera’s first “super-couple” in the early 1980’s – a genre convention which lived on decades later. While Francis attempted to escape the Laura Vining Webber Baldwin Spencer character several times throughout her adult life, leaving the soap to attend school or get married and have babies, the fans’ unending nostalgia for her character always seemed to bring her back into the daytime fold.
Born Eugenie Ann Francis on May 26, 1962 in Engelwood, NJ, this future princess of daytime drama got her career started at an early age. The daughter of Broadway stage actor Ivor Francis, the young girl and her family moved to Los Angeles, CA when she was just seven years of age. While the move was originally intended to facilitate her father’s career, as fate would have it, it was Ivor’s daughter who was destined for fame. Bitten by the acting bug in her early teens, Francis reportedly begged her father to pass along her junior high school yearbook photo to his agent. Once her picture made the rounds among casting offices, it did not take long for Hollywood to come knocking.
Thanks to her fresh-faced radiance and “all-American girl” good looks, the 14-year-old Francis got auditions almost immediately. Within a year, Francis landed her first major credit – an episodic guest starring role in one of the era’s most acclaimed television dramas, “Family” (ABC, 1976-1980). No small feat this, the role led directly to Francis’s most famous role – that of the beautiful, wholesome Laura Vining Webber on daytime’s longest-running soap, “General Hospital” (ABC, 1963- ).
Luke and Laura
The first encounter between the virginal Laura Webber and resident bad boy Luke Spencer did not portend a particularly happily-ever-after future for the two lovers. In fact, the duo’s first sexual encounter occurred under horrific circumstances – with the emotionally conflicted Luke raping his employee Laura on the dance floor of a disco. Amazingly enough, the complex character of Luke grew extremely popular with fans, and it was they who demanded that the character be redeemed. The writers listened, calling the rape a “seduction” and prompting Laura to not only forgive her rapist – but to even protect him from authorities. Before long, Luke and Laura actually fell in love – a decision which many critics derided as unrealistic and offensive to actual victims of rape. Still, the pairing worked, and it was, after all, a soap opera where suspension of disbelief was mandatory.
As the adventures of Luke & Laura became a national obsession, the show’s ratings skyrocketed, with college students going so far as to schedule their classes around it. Carried by an unprecedented wave of mainstream popularity, Francis and her frizzy-haired co-star, Geary, appeared on the covers of such national magazines as Newsweek and People . To many, however, the ultimate sign of “having arrived” came in the early 1980’s, when America’s king of late-night, Johnny Carson, himself, incorporated Luke and Laura material in his monologues. The Nov. 16, 1981 wedding of Luke and Laura remained the most-watched daytime TV event in history and stood as a high watermark of early 1980’s soap drama. Even “GH” fan Elizabeth Taylor popped in for a guest spot as the evil Helena Cassadine who puts a curse on the newly married couple. Only Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer’s real-life summer nuptials were watched by more people that year.
Not long after the wedding heard round the world, in 1982, at the height of her popularity, Francis left “GH” to try her hand in primetime series. Although Francis insisted she would not return, the actress would eventually return to the role of Laura Webber Spencer at least three more times over the course of her career; once in 1984, then 1993 and again in 2006. The year she initially left, Francis joined the cast of “Bare Essence” (NBC, 1982-83), a short-lived nighttime drama set in the world of the perfume industry. Despite a strong start with a movie-of-the-week premiere, ratings for “Bare Essence” began to stink like week-old fish by mid-season. Cancelled after just one year, “Bare Essence” did at least have one redeeming quality – it introduced Francis to her future husband, actor Jonathan Frakes. Frakes himself would later go on to fame as the stalwart Commander William T. Riker on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (Syndicated, 1987-1994). Francis and Frakes co-starred with each other three more times in the 3-part Civil War mini-series, “North and South” (ABC, 1985), “North and South: Book II” (1986) and “Heaven and Hell: North and South Book III” (1994), based on the novels of author John Jakes. Eager to shed her clean, goody-two shoes image, Francis took on the role of the vixenish southern belle, Brett Main Hazard, proving she had more chops than expected.
Back to Daytime
In 1987, Francis returned to daytime television; this time playing seductive schemer Diana Colville on the long-running serial “Days of Our Lives” (NBC, 1965- ). Francis’ two-year stint on the show was extremely well received, re-establishing her as one of daytime’s hottest actresses. Francis left “Days” in 1990, however, after receiving a significantly more lucrative contract from competing rival show, “All My Children” (ABC, 1970- ). There, Francis created the role of con woman-grifter Ceara Connor; arguably her next best-known role after Laura Webber Spencer. Catching lightning in the bottle a second time, Francis’s Ceara became one of Pine Valley’s most popular denizens. Originally a rival of co-star Susan Lucci’s Erika Kane for the show’s “diva queen supreme” title, the beautifully bitchy Ceara was eventually revealed to be a tragic victim of sexual abuse and incest. Francis’ portrayal of an adult incest survivor earned her some of the strongest critical praise of her career.
Back to GH
Seemingly reconciled with her teenage image, Francis made a much ballyhooed return to “General Hospital” in 1993, reuniting with her former co-star Anthony Geary. While not nearly as popular as they were a decade before, the return of Luke and Laura was touted as a triumphant event and marked the beginning of a creative renaissance for “GH.” Francis signed on for yet another tour-of-duty – this time, a longer one that spanned nine years. With the exception of an 18-month leave of absence in 1997 to have her second child – an eternity in the world of soaps – Francis remained with “General Hospital” continuously well into the new millennium.
In 2002, however, Francis abruptly quit “GH” following a contract dispute with ABC. Though details remained vague, Francis claimed that her departure from the show was hastened as the result of an interview she’d given a year earlier, in which she admitted to heavy drug use during the early 1980’s Luke and Laura heyday. This revelation apparently embarrassed both ABC and “General Hospital” Executive Producer Jill Farren Phelps – the latter of whom Francis already shared a tense relationship with. Others whispered that Francis’ weight was an issue – in that, like many mothers, Francis had difficulty getting back down to her original pre-pregnancy weight. In any event, the bottom line resulted in Laura’s character being written out of the show a second time – and with a vengeance, some would say. Francis’ exit storyline; a particularly dark affair which entailed Laura falling into a downward spiral of insanity, divorcing Luke, and ultimately killing her beloved stepfather, Rick Webber. Last seen in a guilt-induced catatonic coma, Laura’s return to redemption seemed unlikely.
The following year, Francis made her feature debut with a cameo in “Thunderbirds” (2004), a $55 million big-screen remake of the animated “super-marionette” television show. Unfortunately, this was not an auspicious start to her film career. The film, which starred Bill Paxton and was directed by her husband, Jonathan Frakes, was an unqualified box-office disaster in the U.S., grossing just a paltry $7 million.
In 2006, following heavy negotiations, the producers of “General Hospital” announced that Francis would return once more to her most famous role, just in time for Luke and Laura’s 25th wedding anniversary. Signed for only a limited run, Francis made her much awaited return to “General Hospital” on Oct. 26, 2006. Freshly awakened from her coma, Laura seemingly suffered from amnesia. Not only did she not remember committing the horrendous murder, she also had no recollection of her and Luke’s divorce – a convenience for fans who never liked either storyline to begin with