The 30-Year Checkup : Blazing Hot Plots and Changing With the Times at ABC's 'General Hospital'

Libby Slate is a frequent contributor to TV Times

In 1963, John Beradino, a former World Series-winning second baseman for the Cleveland Indians, signed on to star in the role of Dr. Steve Hardy on a new daytime drama, "General Hospital." ABC created it hoping to capitalize on the success of the prime-time medical series "Dr. Kildare" and "Ben Casey."

The fledgling show's budget at that time was so small that, in addition to providing his own wardrobe, sharing a dressing room with his male castmates and doing his own hair, Beradino was asked by producer-director Jim Young to take a reduction in the salary he had initially been offered, in order to buy furniture for the set.

Beradino was reimbursed long ago. And nowadays, with "General Hospital" celebrating its 30th anniversary Thursday, the paycheck of the show's only remaining original cast member seems more secure than ever.

For just as Dr. Hardy moved up during those three decades to become hospital chief of staff, the show itself has enjoyed success that at one point bordered on the phenomenal, in the process bringing a new look and sound to daytime soaps.

Its alumni include original cast member Roy Thinnes, James Sikking, Mark Hamill, Richard Dean Anderson (as Beradino's illegitimate son), Daniel J. Travanti, Demi Moore, Janine Turner and John Stamos. Elizabeth Taylor and Sammy Davis Jr. have appeared as guest stars.

Created by Frank and Doris Hursley, the show initially focused on the seventh-floor internal medicine department of an East Coast hospital; its fictional locale of Port Charles, N.Y., was not established until the 1970s. From the outset, Beradino says, the creative team knew how to grab an audience, pairing Hardy with nurse Jessie Brewer (Emily McLaughlin, who remained with the show until her death in 1991) as close friends whose relationship remained platonic because both were married to others.

"The audience was pulling for something to happen between them, but it never did," he says. "It was very carefully written."

In those early years, the 30-minute, black-and-white show was shot live on tape, which meant that, Beradino recalls, "If you made a mistake, it was left in. The only time they stopped tape was when there was a threat of fire. I was awaiting my cue once and saw smoke billowing. Someone had left a cigarette butt in a wastebasket.

"You had to learn the other actors' lines," he adds, "because people would forget the lines and you'd have to bail them out. When you did things live, there was tension all the time."

In 1968, the serial enjoyed its first surge of popularity with a bold storyline about the then-little-known procedure of artificial insemination. Knowing how much Hardy wanted a child, Beradino's screen wife Audrey (Rachel Ames) had herself secretly inseminated, then told him that he had made her pregnant.

"It was a wonderful story for me," says Ames, who joined the soap in February, 1964.

In 1976, upon orders from then-ABC daytime programming head Fred Silverman, the show expanded to 45 minutes, airing at 2:15 p.m. in a move which, Ames says, "almost did us in" because viewers were unaccustomed to turning on a show at that odd time. Having been the No.1-rated soap in 1972, the show reached its Nielsen nadir in 1977. Accordingly, Gloria Monty, previously director of "The Secret Storm" and a former acting teacher whose students included Marlon Brando and Walter Matthau, was hired to save the show.

Monty's reign on the 60-minute show, which began on Jan. 1, 1978, signified not only the start of a new year but also a new soap era. She introduced such filmmaking techniques as shooting out of sequence for later editing--much to the actors' relief, Beradino notes--and using quick cuts. Out went the cliched organ music in favor of contemporary scoring, and the wardrobe, lighting and sets were also jazzed up.

The following year saw the beginning of the controversial Luke and Laura storyline that zoomed the show back to the ratings top spot in 1980. In this plot, Laura Baldwin (Genie Francis) was first raped by anti-hero Luke Spencer (Anthony Geary) and then fell in love with him. The couple made the cover of Newsweek in 1981, and their wedding that year received a 52 audience share, a daytime ratings record.

Ironically, from that time on, the setting that gave the show its name has receded into relative obscurity, overshadowed by an emphasis on younger characters and action-adventure, a situation which both Beradino and Ames hope will change.

"The creators explained to me that the hospital was like the hub of a big wagon wheel, with spokes supporting it and always coming back to it," Beradino says. "When I recently said to a young cast member that the hospital is still here, the cast member said, 'It's the 90s.' And I said, 'They don't have hospitals in the '90s?' And the next day, there was the massacre at County General (in Los Angeles)."

"General Hospital" airs weekdays at 2 p.m. on ABC.

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