Luke and Laura: General Hospital's Perfect Couple

By Eric Gelman with Janet Huck in Los Angeles

Though Genie Francis sparkles with the wholesome gleam o a typical teenager, she has spent the better part of her adolescence in a sunless television studio playing a girl who had her first lover at 14, then was accused of murder and raped. Anthony Geary, meanwhile, has always looked like the weird kid in town; he's made a career playing off beat characters that he describes as being "left of the sun." In short, they are both a little odd, which may be precisely what makes them a perfect couple. As "General Hospital's" Luke Spencer and Laura Baldwin, they generate a quirky chemistry that captivates viewers--and has transformed them into the most compelling pair of lovers in the steamy world of daytime soaps.

For 19-year-old Genie Francis, portraying Laura has had less to do with acting than with simply growing up. Born into Hollywood, the daughter of a veteran actor and actress who have yet to attain her celebrity, she landed the role at the tender age of 14. Her only previous screen credit was a guest shot on ABC's prime-time series "Family." But nothing could have prepared her for the high intensity of daytime's other world. At first, Laura's sexuality nearly overwhelmed her. "I couldn't remember my lines because I was afraid of the sex," she says. The vertiginous emotional landscape her character inhabited was terra inncognita for the pretty teen-ager. "I hadn't gone through those things yet," Francis recalls. "All of a sudden, I had to find the woman inside of me and bring her out for the first time in front of America. It was very, very scary."

Real Kid: That scary immediacy isjust what made her Laura a hit. "Young people went nutty because they weren't getting a 25year-old faking it, they were getting a real kid," Francis says, Ironically, the soul-searching--and long hours--that the part required robbed Francis of anything approaching a conventional adolescence. "General Hospital" cast members tried to add a touch of teen-age normalcy to her life by throwing her a sweetsixteen party, and when she passed her high-school equivalency exam--she had no time for regular classes--they held a graduation ceremony, complete with a tape-recorded "Pomp and Circumstance." But that didn't make up for missing the real thing. "I was not having any contact with my peers," Francis says. "I was very lonely and very unhappy."

Like Genie Francis, Tony Geary enjoyed success relatively early in his career. But it did not lead him to immediate stardom. Geary was at the University of Utah on a theater scholarship in 1967 when Jack Albertson spotted him in a college production and signed him for a tour of "The Subject Was Roses." "I thought I had it made," he recalls. He was wrong; it took thirteen years of journeyman labor before he clicked in "GH."

Geary is the first to admit that he lacks the looks of the traditional leading man. "My face is not the face of a sex symbol," he says. "But Luke Spencer isn't interested in being pretty." Luke's appeal, he believes, stems from the fact that he is neither a good guy nor a bad guy, but a confused mixture of decent impulses and self-destructive appetites. That ambiguity, he adds, makes Luke a great part to play. "It's more fascinating to play a character with grays," Geary says. "Luke is an actor's dream because he's so volatile and alive."

Escape: The adulation that his character inspires has become something of a problem for Geary. He is mobbed whenever he makes a personal appearance--whether at a suburban shopping center or, as was the case last spring, in an acting seminar at Harvard. At a Ft. Worth shopping mall last year, women greeted him with cries of "Rape me, Luke! Rape me!" And in St. Louis, a woman broke through a crowd of soap addicts to present Geary with a mock award naming him "America's Most Beloved Rapist." Geary has since cut back on publicity outings and tries to escape the shadow of Luke by traveling to "places where they don't speak English and I can be a regular person." But that stratagem doesn't always work. Last January Geary was in the Panama airport on his way to Rio when a stranger shouted to him: "Luke, Luke, donde este Laura?"

There had been talk that Luke and Laura's high-Nielsen fling would culminate in marriage this fall. But this no longer seems likely. The reason: both stars plan to sign themselves out of "General Hospital" as soon as they can. Francis announced last week that she plans to quit the series when her contract is up in December. "I can't continue to do fourteen-hour days five days a week for the rest of my life," she says. "I want to start living again." And Geary says he won't renew his contract when it expires in December 1982. He doesn't want people to start wondering if Luke is the only part he can play. But whatever turns their careers take after they leave "GH," only one question will matter in TV's daytime battle ofthe soaps: if Luke and Laura split up, who will get custody of their ratings?