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January 02, 1994|LIBBY SLATE | Libby Slate is a frequent contributor to TV Times and Calendar

Charley Brown's near Universal Studios may seem like just another place to eat in the Valley. But back in the summer of 1992, when it was still Reuben's, the restaurant was the setting for one of the most significant lunches in recent soap-opera history.

It was there that Tony Geary and Genie Francis, who 10 years earlier had left their phenomenally popular roles as Luke and Laura Spencer on ABC's "General Hospital," met to catch up. They had seen each other only twice in the intervening years.

He had appeared in features, TV movies and stage productions at the Los Angeles Theatre Center and elsewhere after departing his Emmy-winning role on "General Hospital." She had been featured in the miniseries "North and South" (Books I and II) and the series "Bare Essence," and was fresh from a two-year stint as incest victim Ceara Connor on ABC's New York-based "All My Children."

Geary already had returned to "General Hospital" in 1991, playing Luke's look-alike cousin Bill Eckert. ABC, anxious for an almost certain ratings bonanza--the couple's 1981 wedding remains the highest-rated soap event ever, watched by 14 million viewers and garnering a 52 share--had been pursuing Francis for a year. But the actress had been reluctant to call a halt to a burgeoning New York theater career to rejoin the soap.

At that fateful lunch, though, Geary recalls, "We talked about playing Luke and Laura again. We knew that sooner or later we wanted to work together again. We became very excited about the idea."

Adds Francis: "We did an improv together to see if those people were still in us. That lunch made me feel like this could be a wonderful thing, a fulfilling acting challenge, and that I shouldn't turn my back on it."

Accordingly, at last year's Daytime Emmy Awards came the announcement that Luke and Laura, whose romance had landed them on the cover of Newsweek a few weeks before their wedding, would indeed be returning to "General Hospital."

And return they did, on Oct. 29. They were the owners of a diner in British Columbia, a continent away from the show's fictional Upstate New York setting of Port Charles. And they're parents of a 10-year-old son, Lucky (Jonathan Jackson).

As it turns out, the path back to Port Charles required as much maneuvering off screen as on. "There had to be new writers and a great story," says Geary, 46, who cites battles he had had with the show's writers over the continuing, confusing changes they made in Eckert's character.

"Primarily, it was, 'Let's get a story that's good, one that we believe in. With Luke and Laura, the stakes have to be very high--there has to be an adversary. These aren't characters who sit around talking about their relationship. These are eccentric characters who drive the plot.

"We said, 'We need a heavyweight (writer),' and we got one in Claire Labine. She's brilliant. They worked on the story for months." Labine, a multiple Emmy Award-winning writer-producer who created the now-departed "Ryan's Hope," was brought on board after ABC dismissed the previous "General Hospital" writing staff.

Once taping actually began, "There was plenty of nervous tension," says the 31-year-old Francis of the role she first played at age 14. "I was scared. It was important to do it right. I was afraid people would say, 'Luke and Laura? So what.' But I was welcomed back warmly. I was surprised at how comfortable it felt."

Moving from Bill to Luke provided a different sort of comfort for Geary. "People laugh when I say this," he says, laughing now himself, "but I asked them to move my dressing room. A room became available that's exactly 63 steps closer to my car! You save miles every week. I'm also closer to the elevator. So much time is usurped by learning lines, every minute counts."

On a less mundane level, both feel that they bring more depth to their roles now. "We are 10 years richer in our lives," Geary says. "The trust factor we had, the ability to listen to each other with our hearts, minds and imaginations has always been there. But now, Genie is a formidable young woman who really knows her craft and business. It's a joy working with her."

Francis, now a real-life wife (to Jonathan Frakes of the syndicated "Star Trek: The Next Generation"), welcomes the chance to break Laura out of her ingenue status, particularly in playing a mother. And, she says, the chemistry between the two, which had been so unmistakable the first time around, is still strong.

"The pleasant surprise for me is that when I look into Tony's eyes, he's still 100% present, sharing everything that's going on," she says. "Acting with him is like a beautiful dance."

Geary also had a revelation. "It was a surprise to me how much energy this takes," he says. "Bill was low maintenance. But Luke burns at a higher flame. I'd forgotten how much he loves life. I'm 10 years older--he almost burned me out then! Being a little more mature now, shall we say, I do have a better sense of pacing. But I fall asleep easily at night."

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