General Hospital's Luke Spencer is slowly dying from polonium poisoning so what better time to interview the guy who plays him, seven-time Emmy winner Anthony Geary? TV Guide Magazine corralled daytime's lion king to discuss his character's current bout with mortality and other dishy topics — from his issues with Luke and Laura to the GH head writer who wanted him fired!
TV Guide Magazine: What's the trick to making us believe Luke is at death's door when we know damn well they'd never get rid of you?
Geary: That's very kind but, in the soap business, everyone is expendable and you never take anything for granted. That said, I'm not sure the audience does buy this. When that ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with polonium a few years back — they think by Putin — he was covered in gruesome sores. It's a hellish death. I really wanted to go there but they wouldn't let me. [Laughs] I do love to look bad.
TV Guide Magazine: How does this death plot stack up in your mind to some of the great Luke Spencer crises of the past — finally facing up to the rape of Laura, the alcoholism, accidentally killing his own grandchild?
Geary: It's hard to compare them, I guess because it feels like this story just came out of nowhere. [Laughs] Then again, I guess getting poisoned with polonium would come out of nowhere, wouldn't it? It is kind of far-fetched but we've done so many far-fetched things on GH that you take it in stride. And if anything could ever kill Spencer, it would have to be something this over-the-top. Either that, or he'd kill himself, which he came close to when he ran down the child. I can see him putting a gun to his head one day.
TV Guide Magazine: If the time comes, you'd want Luke to exit in a shocking way?
Geary: If I ever do leave GH — not something I want to see happen anytime soon — I want Luke to die. I don't want him coming home for Christmas episodes or the birth of his great grandchildren. I would prefer to have him go out in a blaze of glory and also that it be the climax of a wonderful story that involves the entire community, rather than some inconsequential B plot. Remember how The Bold and the Beautiful got rid of our wonderful Susan Flannery? That was a terrific story, really sensational, and you couldn't do it with a better actress. Last time I saw Susan, I told her how much I admired how that was handled, and how she had set the template for those of us who have been on the soaps forever. We ought to go out in a way that gives the audience real closure, rather than just fading off or being sent away on a cruise. It is a very honorable thing to do with a character that is loved and has been part of the fabric of the daytime medium for a long time. But I know the network has a real resistance to that sort of thing.
TV Guide Magazine: Yet killing off major characters is all the rage on cable. Will daytime ever get that bold?
Geary: That's one of the reasons people are loving the great cable shows so much right now — because characters are in real jeopardy and they really do die. That makes us invest as viewers. It makes us feel. It makes us believe. In soaps, people come back from the dead all the time, to the point where death is just a bus stop. It's not my choice to go but I've had an awfully good run and I wouldn't mind being a sacrificial lamb to let the audience believe that characters can really, really die. I think that would be offering the show, and the medium in general, a great gift. [Laughs] Now watch. The powers that be read this interview and go, "He wants real jeopardy? Let's give him jeopardy. Let's kill the mother--ker!"
TV Guide Magazine: Well, you got a taste of it the other day when Olivia had that psychic vision of Luke's death and you had to climb into a casket. How'd that feel? Was that a career first?
Geary: Yes, I've never done a scene in a casket before. It was definitely strange but, actually, I was so comfortable in there, I might reconsider my plans to be cremated!
TV Guide Magazine: Enough about death. Let's talk about life. You escape GH for weeks, sometimes months, at a time and retreat to your home in Amsterdam. What's your typical day there?
Geary: I usually get up not before 9. I have a huge library — I'm a big fan of Scandinavian crime fiction — so I'll usually take a book and go off to one of my favorite bistros for a cappuccino or espresso or maybe I'll have some lovely smoked salmon for breakfast. Then I usually go back home and write for a couple of hours, doing my own creative thing as well as catching up with my correspondence. If the weather's nice I take the boat and go around the canals, or down the Amstel river to some medieval villages that are not far away. I have a lot of friends there now and often meet for dinner. Sometime I'll bicycle all the way around the IJsselmeer, which is a big lake out beyond the dykes that hold back the North Sea. There are fabulous fishing villages to explore. Sometimes I'll take the train to Paris or Brussels. I have friends in France who are artists. I go to gallery openings and things like that. It's all kind of idyllic, really.
TV Guide Magazine: Are you still a secret star over there?
Geary: Yes, thank God! They do not air GH in Holland so I don't get recognized. But the Dutch are wonderfully unimpressed with celebrity, so even if the show did play over there it probably wouldn't affect things much. It's a wonderful life and I am so blessed. You knew me in the days when I was spinning out of control. If I hadn't found Holland and my life there, I think I would be a very miserable person. I don't know even know if I'd be able to function. I might have gone the route of those child actors from the '80s.
TV Guide Magazine: The cast of Diff'rent Strokes?
Geary: Exactly! I might be a perennial rehab visitor. You might see me on Dr. Phil bemoaning my sad state. Driving back home from the studio today, I saw a guy standing at Sunset and Beachwood with a sign that read "The New Celebrity Homeless." He looked like he was somebody because he had a really nice haircut, and we all know that in L.A. the hair is where it starts. When I saw that guy I thought, "That could have been me."
TV Guide Magazine: Back to GH, what are your thoughts on Luke's health crisis being used as the catalyst for splitting up Laura and Scott?
Geary: Uh...was he the catalyst for that?
TV Guide Magazine: Well, yeah...hey, weren't you in that scene?
Geary: Was I?
TV Guide Magazine: Laura was all freaked out about Luke getting poisoned and ran off to find him. That was the last straw for Scotty and he decided the marriage was over. As I recall, Luke was in the room while the bust-up was occurring.
Geary: [Laughs] Probably doubled over in pain. He was depressed! He was dying! What can I tell you? I guess I wasn't paying much attention. It never occurred to me that's what was going on.
TV Guide Magazine: Assuming Luke survives, is his romance with Tracy [Jane Elliot] one for the ages?
Geary: Their relationship is gold and a joy to play. It's fraught with dysfunction and conflict but I think they really do love and respect each other. The good thing is they will never have children. She can be his support system and he can be hers, she can have her own storylines and he can have his, but they don't ever need to mesh into a hyphenation like Luke and Laura did.
TV Guide Magazine: So Tracy will just overlook all the crap she detests about Luke?
Geary: I think we've worked the f—k out of that problem for a few years now. They're both town pariahs. They only have each other. It's so wrong, it's right. Remember when Jane had that wonderful scene a few months back where Tracy blasted Luke and tells him, "I'm tired of crumbs! I want the whole meal!"? Well, after Luke gets the antidote for the polonium poisoning — which may or may not be the real cure — he has a line to Tracy where he promises her "the whole enchilada." [Laughs] Which I thought was an unfortunate choice of words and rather insulting. It used to be a burrito. Well, at least the writers didn't make it a taquito!
TV Guide Magazine: It's odd Luke and Alexis [Nancy Lee Grahn] never found each other.
Geary: I don't know why the writers never went in that direction because that certainly has a lot of potential for sparkle and fire. And, of course, you know I am in love with Maura West [Ava]. We had great scenes when she first came on the show and I would do anything to work with her some more. That lady really knows how to bring the noir.
TV Guide Magazine: And we can't forget that Heather [Robin Mattson] desperately wants Luke.
Geary: Hey, it's nice to be wanted. By anybody. At this age, Jesus! I shouldn't be complaining about anything!
TV Guide Magazine: What do you say to the Luke-and-Laura diehards who want the characters happy and back together?
Geary: Okay. Here goes. First, some historical perspective. When Gloria Monty returned to GH as executive producer [in 1991], she wanted me to return with her, however neither us wanted to do Luke and Laura again. When last seen, they were desperately in love and delirious with joy about having their first child. They went off together into the sunset because that's what happens to happy, romantic couples you don't want to change. To me, as well as to Ms. Monty, that well-written exit meant the Luke and Laura story was over. The idea of them snuggled in a little house with children in Port Charles living an idealistic life together was out of the question.
TV Guide Magazine: Thus the creation of Luke's lookalike cousin, Bill Eckert?
Geary: Yes. Two years later Wendy Riche took over as producer and Claire Labine was signed on as head writer. The fans didn't like Bill. They wanted Luke back. I tried everything to create a new character — brown contact lenses, beard, wig, new blue-collar attitude, etc. — but they wanted Luke and they were going to get him. ABC decided I'd once again be Luke and Genie [Francis] would return as Laura. I said okay — I was under contract — but they had to show good faith by allowing me to present them with a six-month storyline that would bring the couple back with their eight or nine-year-old son, Lucky — a creation of mine and my writing partner, Irene Suver, that has never been acknowledged. ABC bought the story, which included finding the family living in their own witness protection program in Canada, owning and operating The Triple L Diner. In the story, we devised a violent death of a friend who worked for them at the diner, which signaled their cover was blown and that the mob was moving in on them. They'd have to take off on the run again. ABC loved the story enough to take us all to Rochester, New York, to shoot it with all the standard Luke and Laura excitement — Luke hanging from a helicopter, Luke and Laura jumping out of an airplane, shooting the river rapids. Then, the story was given over to Claire Labine. She and Wendy were overheard saying, "Do we really have to do Luke and Laura again?" It was clear from the beginning they were not thrilled with the idea of writing and producing this couple. Labine then set out to deconstruct Luke and Laura, first by sticking them in a house and domesticating them. Gone were the rough edges and the danger and in its place Laura became a total hausfrau who was BFFs with everyone in town, and Luke fed the dog and fell through the sofa cushions.
TV Guide Magazine: So what did you do?
Geary: I complained bitterly, to anyone who would listen, and I took it on myself to rewrite the offending scenes of bland kitchen drama. Labine, of course, hated that and told me she didn't want to write an amoral character and that she didn't understand the Luke I wanted to play — the one I had always played — and if I kept insisting on making my character so dark by working against her scripts I would have to go to another show. Then, Genie's character left — after divorcing Luke, which no one remembers, to marry a Cassadine — and I started to get extended time off.
TV Guide Magazine: Yet it was Labine who was sent packing.
Geary: She took her particular brand of fine writing to another show. But her legacy remained. Luke had been domesticated. I spent the next five years struggling to regain the lost ground and reinvigorate the more complex qualities of the character that I have always treasured. In the meantime, I've watched those qualities be siphoned off and installed in new characters until GH became a veritable stable of antiheroes, Luke being written the mildest of the lot — a phenomenon that continues to this day. Now, to answer your question about what I'd say to the fans who still want Luke and Laura together? The past is best left in the memory. Nothing stays the same except butterflies under glass. In drama, there has to be conflict and movement. There is nothing less interesting to me than the thought of a 65-year-old man making goo-goo eyes as he feeds his wife strawberries and they forever relive their glory days. The [viewers] you speak of have always wanted Luke and Laura happy and growing old together like Ward and June Cleaver. They're like a child who never got over his parents' divorce and lives in perennial hope that mommy and daddy will get back together again. For a variety of reasons, that is not going to happen. The audience needs to let it go and find interest in tomorrow instead of yesterday.
TV Guide Magazine: Easier said than done. Those Luke and Laura fans are fierce.
Geary: The reality of the two characters is that they are soulmates and do have a great love for each other but they grew far apart in the years Laura was gone. Luke has become more who he was before he met her, and we don't really know what Laura has become because they never got into what was happening with her when she wasn't on the canvas. I appreciate beyond words that people still want to see me as this character. However, it is my creed that the only thing I owe my fans is a good performance. It's been a big struggle to hold onto the Luke Spencer that was originally created for me by Gloria Monty and Douglas Marland. If a writer wants to honor Luke and Laura as they were originally conceived and move them forward to true grown-up status with problems and a pitch-dark past, and keep them conflicted and in turmoil, I'll be happy to play it. But fans wanting Luke and Laura together just to have them together has never been of any use to me.
TV Guide Magazine: Final words?
Geary: Please send hate mail to Michael Logan. He asked, I merely answered honestly!