Luke Spencer has spent four decades chasing happiness in picturesque Port Charles but little time actually finding any.
Events always seem to get in the way. Things like accidentally killing his mother with a baseball bat, purposefully killing a mob boss, becoming a mob boss, kidnapping various personages, being kidnapped himself, being injected with a deadly virus, owning a disco, falling ill during an encephalitis outbreak that he brought to town, being run over by a car while saving someone’s life, burning down a police station, marrying Laura, divorcing Laura, marrying Tracy, divorcing Tracy, breaking his back in an avalanche, residing in a psychiatric facility, having a heart attack and undergoing quadruple-bypass surgery. Lately he’s been having suicidal thoughts too.
But that’s life in a soap opera — at least until Monday, when one of daytime television’s most beloved, intriguing and unconventional leading men, played by actor Anthony Geary, officially takes his leave of ABC’s “General Hospital.”
“Luke really is iconic, one of the original gray hats of daytime,” said the 68-year-old actor in his dressing room last month after taping one of his final scenes at Hollywood’s Prospect Studios. “He was designed as the guy you love to hate and hate to love. He’s a classically romantic character, a classic anti-hero.”
The high point of his decades in Port Charles remains his character’s on-screen romance with Laura Spencer, played by Genie Francis. The couple’s roller-coaster romance was a game-changer for daytime television and helped propel “General Hospital” into becoming the longest-running American soap still in production today.
Their storyline broadened the show’s audience beyond what many thought was possible for a soap, attracting legions of new fans in workplaces and college campuses alike. Their “Luke and Laura” wedding episode in November 1981 drew 30 million viewers, still a record for a daytime drama.
“When he started, soap operas were custom-made for stay-at-home housewives,” said Ed Martin, editor and TV critic of MediaVillage.com who has closely followed “General Hospital.” “It was the home for very pretty people. Tony wasn’t the typical leading man — he looked like an ordinary guy.”
Exiting the show is something Geary has been contemplating for 15 years. Except for an eight-year break in the 1980s, he’s been on the show since 1978. (The series premiered in April 1963.) While he still finds the Luke Spencer character “compelling and interesting to play,” he feels the timing is right to move on.
“I feel very positive about my decision,” said Geary, who recently picked up his eighth Emmy for lead actor in a drama, the most of any leading man in daytime. “That’s tempered by leaving a character that has been part of me for more than half my life.”
When his last scenes air Monday, Geary will be in Holland, where he has owned a house for 20 years.
“I’ll be reinventing myself in a new place and a new language,” said Geary, whose dream is to perform in a musical comedy.
Also on the bucket list are acting in the classics or in a comedy.
While grateful for his success, Geary said he’s glad he’ll finally be free of the creative straitjacket his character imposed. The soap-opera formula of relentless drama made bringing nuance to his character challenging.
“There’s very little resolution, and certainly no consequences for a character like mine,” he said. “A man who has killed people but always felt so bad about it that he was forgiven. Or the victims were bad people to begin with and his vigilantism was overlooked.”
Even though more than three decades have passed since the “Luke and Laura” wedding, he said he can’t fully understand pop culture’s enduring fascination with it. The romance makes him more than a little uncomfortable — after all, he points out, it began when Spencer became obsessed with young Laura and raped her.
“It’s amazing that people still talk about it,” he said. “For me, Luke and Laura became as much of a burden as an advantage. Whenever I go on a talk show, they run that clip. It’s like having your high school picture dragged out every time you meet someone.
“I appreciate it was a seminal moment for daytime. But personally it was not a wonderful time for me. It’s difficult for me to appreciate it the way other people do. Plus, I had that awful ‘80s ‘fro!”
In his last days as Spencer, Geary’s co-stars and colleagues have showered him with praise, calling him a true professional who raised the bar for the “General Hospital” company.
“All the young actors who have come through here looked up to Tony,” said the show’s executive producer, Frank Valentini. “There’s so much respect and adoration for him.”
Casting Geary was the idea of the late Gloria Monty, hired by ABC in 1977 to breathe new life into the then-flailing series. One of her initial moves was to increase the screen time of young cast members. Geary was added to the mix in 1978 as Luke Spencer, a guy from the wrong side of the tracks affiliated with the mob.
The role was supposed to last only 13 weeks. But when Monty and the late writer Douglas Marland had the shady Spencer become smitten with Laura, everything changed.
“Genie was only 17 at the time, and I was 32,” Geary said. “They had Luke become obsessed with her, which led to the rape, which was then romanticized to my great regret through the years. Ironically, the audience had as much sympathy for the rapist as they did for the victim, which nobody quite understood. I certainly didn’t. After that, Luke became more of a focal point.”
The love story became a social phenomena — Newsweek featured the photogenic couple on its cover with the headline “TV’s Hottest Show.” College students arranged their classes around the show’s air time. One industry insider said “General Hospital” during the 1980s earned enough profit to fund ABC’s entire development slate for prime time.
Although Luke and Laura is a bit of a sore subject (the on-air couple had two kids but divorced in 2001), Geary’s eyes brightened when talking about Francis and their on-screen chemistry.
“Those clear eyes, that porcelain skin,” he said. “When Genie looked up at me, I really felt like somebody. She gave me romance. I gave her danger. That was the gift we handed each other without realizing it.”
Francis was equally glowing about Geary.
“Nobody knows why lightning in a bottle happens,” said Francis, who has been on and off “General Hospital” for years and returned to help close out Spencer’s story.
“We had a powerful emotional connection to each other, and that comes through in our scenes,” she said. “We could tell what the other was thinking. I was also very intimidated, very young. But I was very determined to go toe-to-toe with him. We fueled each other. It was a crazy ride for both of us.”
The amazing success of the romance naturally led producers to try to capitalize on Geary’s popularity. It was something he fought frequently.
“I don’t have the looks or temperament for a romantic lead,” he said. “So that has been a battle through the years.”
So how will the show send out a character that has seemingly done it all — or had it done to him? Geary won’t reveal any specifics, of course.
“They’ve given me a terrific wrap for my character,” he said. “He’s been a difficult, eclectic character to find a logical motivating conclusion for, but they’ve done that.”
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