Broadcast television has always been defined by big moments. Apart from the “everyone remembers watching Very Significant News Event” kind of moments, fictional occurrences that were watched en masse take on a cultural life of their own. Whether it’s the finale of M*A*S*H or Dr. Richard Kimble catching up with the One-Armed Man at the end of The Fugitive, certain stories draw wide attention and become part of America’s shared memory. One such event took place 40 years ago this week, and it became the highest-rated single hour in the history of American soap operas. That was the wedding of Luke and Laura on ABC’s General Hospital.
Genie Francis joined the cast of General Hospital in 1977, taking over the role of Laura Vining. The following year, the show’s ratings had drifted so low that ABC was openly considering cancellation. Gloria Monty came aboard as an executive producer along with new head writer Douglas Marland; their mission was to bring new life to the program. Francis was one of the centerpieces of their plan. They felt that by moving the teen character up front, they could pull in younger viewers and tell different kinds of stories. The plan worked, Laura grew in popularity, and her relationship with Scotty Baldwin (Kin Shriner) became a major storyline. Of course, soap opera romances demand obstacles, so the character of Luke Spencer (Anthony Geary) was introduced as part of a scheme on behalf of Luke’s sister, Bobbie (Jacklyn Zeman) to break up Laura and Scotty (Bobbie, of course, wanted Scotty for herself). Geary was only supposed to be on a few months before Luke would be killed off. The audience saw it differently, though, as the Luke and Laura pairing exploded in popularity.
In 1979, a shuffling of chairs in the writer’s room put Pat Falken Smith in charge. Smith decided to slow down the Luke and Laura story with a decision that was baffling then and would cause a volcano of outrage today. Smith wrote a storyline that had Luke rape Laura. A 1980 issue of Soap Opera Stars magazine recounted how Monty intervened to an extent, doing what she could during filming to make things seem more ambiguous. Nevertheless, the show continued onward with Luke and Laura’s romance, and the audience, despite that storyline, embraced it. Bizarrely, the song played during that scene and subsequent flashbacks, “Rise” by Herb Alpert, got such a boost in popularity that it went to #1 on the Hot 100 that year.
By the next summer, the show had gone in a completely different direction, centering Luke and Laura in an ongoing series of crime and adventure plots. The most famous is the “Ice Princess” story, in which multiple characters are pursuing a large diamond of that name. On one side is the show’s Quartermaine family, Luke, Laura, and Agent Robert Scorpio (Tristan Rogers), while the evil side is represented by Mikkos Cassadine (reliably villainous TV vet John Colicos). Cassadine wants the diamond to power a device that could start a new Ice Age, and he uses it to freeze GH home city Port Charles while holding the world for ransom. After defeating Cassadine, Luke and Laura return home planning to get married.
It bears noting that Luke and Laura weren’t the only big attraction on General Hospital in 1981. Rick Springfield had joined the cast that March as Dr. Noah Drake, and his massive hit “Jessie’s Girl” dominated radio that year. It went to #1 in August, and was in that position on the day that MTV launched. While Luke and Laura’s storylines were the primary driver of the show, Springfield’s presence and significant popularity (as well as Drake’s on-screen romance with Bobbie) pushed the ratings even higher.
Another possible wrinkle in what made the advertising hype and run-up to the wedding episode so big is the fact that there were far fewer television programs in 1981 than there are today. Modern cable TV was still in its infancy. ESPN and TBS were barely two years old, MTV had just started, and what we know as basic cable didn’t even have complete national distribution. As a result, the vast majority of TVs were tuned in to the three major broadcast networks (CBS, NBC, and ABC; Fox wouldn’t appear for five more years). And while early model VCRs were available in the U.S., the product’s boom years were still on the horizon. Big TV events were appointment television, an ’80s version of FOMO (fear of missing out).
Even with surging viewership and a rolling hype train, the writers and producers had originally planned to delay any Luke and Laura wedding until a later date. That is, until Elizabeth Taylor intervened. The screen legend was a fan and called the producers personally to tell them that if the couple got married, she would appear on the show. Taylor was quickly cast as Helena Cassadine, the equally villainous widow of Mikkos. She would appear in five episodes, including the wedding itself. Taylor’s appearance would also be mined for publicity, adding fuel to an already raging fire of attention.
The actual wedding episodes ran on November 16 and November 17, 1981, with the conclusion of the ceremony landing near the end of the November 17 episode. Roughly 30 million Americans watched the fictional nuptials, which were featured on the covers of Newsweek and People. The run-up and event cemented Luke and Laura as the most famous “supercouple,” a pairing that a soap could use as a story pillar around which other plotlines orbit. While they weren’t the first heavily followed duo, their outlandish adventures and obstacles to togetherness became a model for other major couples, like Bo and Hope (Days of Our Lives) and Josh and Reva (Guiding Light).
But as the soaps teach us, happiness doesn’t last long. Francis left GH in 1982 for prime-time work. While the show, Bare Essence, didn’t stick, she did meet her husband Jonathan Frakes, who is best known as Commander Riker from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Francis would return to GH for several stints over the years, with and without Geary, while also playing characters on other soaps like The Young & The Restless, Days of Our Lives, and All My Children. Francis won a Daytime Emmy for playing Laura in 2007. Geary left the first time in 1983, but also made several long-term returns (one time as Luke’s identical cousin). He worked constantly in film and TV over the years. By the time he retired in 2015, he had won eight Daytime Emmys for Outstanding Lead Actor. In 2017, he made a wordless cameo appearance on GH for actress Jane Elliot’s final episode; Elliot had played one of Luke’s love interests, Tracy Quartermaine, and the appearance suggests that she and Luke had reconciled in Europe.
One highlight of the duo’s return engagements over the years is that the writers and actors finally dug into the rape storyline in 1998; the episodes dealt with the lingering trauma with modern sensibilities, discussing how it affected both characters and their son, Lucky, when he learned about it.
The frenzy around the Luke and Laura wedding might have been a minor phenomenon for its time, but die-hard fandom has only blossomed in the internet age. “Shippers” follow shows for their favorite couples and have no end of debates about their exploits online. The serialized aspect of soap storytelling has become matter of course for almost all television drama, from comedies to prestige programs. And while only four broadcast soaps remain on the air, General Hospital, in danger of cancellation 40 years ago, is indeed still standing. Though viewership remains fractured among all of the various offerings in terms of broadcast, cable and streaming, many of the most fondly remembered moments are the ones that more people experienced together.
Featured image: s_bukley / Shutterstock
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