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‘General Hospital’ Rises From Deathbed

The ABC soap opera General Hospital celebrated its 50th anniversary this week (it debuted April 1, 1963). That monumental feat becomes even more mind-boggling when you consider that, less than a year ago, the denizens of Port Charles — including moody mobster Sonny Corinthos — were thought to be on death’s door. With other soaps dropping like flies and ratings in a slump, GH seemed like a certain goner.

But a creative shake-up that brought aboard executive producer Frank Valentini and lead writer Ron Carlivati has breathed new life into GH, which is the longest-running soap currently in production (The Young and the Restless celebrated its 40th anniversary on March 26). Meanwhile, ABC has pumped up the marketing machine, and the anniversary has led to the return of several familiar faces, which has gotten fans excited again.

Actor Maurice Benard shares in the excitement. He has played Sonny for 20 years, winning a Daytime Emmy award along the way. Benard recently signed a contract extension that keeps him on the show for at least two more years. He also finished shooting an independent feature film called The Ghost and the Whale, in which he plays the lead character — a man accused of murder after his wife mysteriously dies at sea.

Benard, who just turned 50, recently took time to chat about General Hospital and his latest showbiz adventures.

Q. Things looked pretty dire for the show there for a while. Are you somewhat surprised to still be here, on the brink of a golden anniversary?

A. Absolutely, considering that we were almost axed. I thought we were gone. Most of the actors thought it was over. But now we’re here, still going strong and better than ever.

Q. And do you mainly attribute that to the changes in the creative team?

A. Yeah, those guys came in with a goal in mind. They had a plan, and they made it work phenomenally. And now, it’s kind of like we’re born again. We’re excited and proud of the show. As for the future, the train is running. Let’s just see where it takes us.

Q. You recently signed a new two-year deal. Is that a vote of confidence in the show and the genre?

A. We’ll see what happens. I still love the character and the people. I really enjoy working with Kelly (Sullivan). Unless I’m bored, I’ll stick around. Nothing kills me more than boredom.

Q. Under the new regime, the mob stories have been de-emphasized. Are you a fan of that move?

A. At this point, I think we need to get back to it a little bit more. On the other hand, I think it’s great that we’ve been able to bring a little more balance to the character (of Sonny) and to put him in the position of having to fight for the woman he loves. I do think we can be doing some more with the mob, but they (the producers and writers) know what they’re doing.

Q. In recent months, a lot of familiar faces have come back to General Hospital. Have you enjoyed these reunions?

A. Yeah, it’s kind of been like a revolving door, and it’s added some spice to life. It’s really cool to have people like Jack Wagner, John Stamos and Genie Francis back in the fold. They’re people I’ve watched a lot over the years. I don’t know if we can keep that door revolving for long. You have to have a staple of what the show really is and not confuse viewers. But it has been fun.

Q. So what has been your favorite Sonny storyline over the years?

A. I immediately think back to when Sonny was first dealing with bipolar disorder (in 2006). He was a broken man. It was very intense, and the most personal storyline I’ve ever had. (Benard was diagnosed as bipolar in his 20s.) And I think we educated some people — as much as you can on a soap opera.

The storyline that had Lily getting blown up with a car bomb was also very memorable, and the AIDS storyline was phenomenal. I could go on and on.

Q. You’ve played Sonny for two decades. How long can you see yourself going on with him?

A. To tell the truth, I wanted to retire at 50. But I couldn’t do it. We’ve got kids and bills to pay. Maybe I’ll be around for the next 50 years. Maybe I’ll end up playing Sonny with a cane and white hair, or no hair at all. We’ll see.

Q. Tell us about this feature film you just got done shooting.

A. We’re very excited about it. I’ve been looking at the dailies, and I really think it will blow you away. I know a lot of people say that, but I truly believe it. I loved playing the character. He’s just so different from me, and from Sonny. He’s not a tough guy at all. He’s a tortured guy. But if you push him, he can probably take your head off.

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GENERAL HOSPITAL

Marathon of 50 classic episodes (including the first)

When: March 29-April 1

Where: SOAPnet

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©2013 Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)

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