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General Hospital Head Writer Ron Carlivati Talks Pausing Soap's "Breakneck Pace" For Powerful 52nd Anniversary Episode (EXCLUSIVE)


Lucas Lorenzo Spencer (Anthony Geary) has faced some menacing foes during his almost four decades in and out of fictional Port Charles, New York on ABC Daytime's General Hospital. Who would have thought Luke's deadliest adversary wasn't a Cassadine or Frank Smith, it was the man in the mirror.

On Wednesday, GH celebrated it's 52nd anniversary with a mostly black-and-white flashback episode revisiting Luke's origin story. The installment also explored why Luke recently suffered a psychotic break (He committed patricide and accidental matricide 52 years ago!) and began terrorizing his loved ones.

In Part 1 of a two-part in depth interview with General Hospital head writer Ron Carlivati, I found out why it was important to tie Luke's back story to GH's premiere episode. I also learned what Geary thought of playing the dual role of Luke and his menacing father Tim.

We also chatted about the decision to cast Laura Wright, who plays hell-raiser Carly Corinthos Jacks, as her character's fragile late grandmother, Lena Eckert Spencer, for the special episode. What about Dee Wallace (Adult Pat), Jason Thompson (Dr. Steve Hardy), Becky Herbst (Jessie Brewer, R.N.), Ryan Carnes (Dr. Phil Brewer) and those amazing actors who brought to life the young Spencers? Could one or more of them turn up in modern day Port Charles? You'll want to keep reading to find out.

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Daytime Confidential: The truth about the Spencers is finally out. When it came to Tim, father definitely did not know best. What made the Spencer patriarch such a hateful monster?

Ron Carlivati: That's a good question. Maybe we need another episode to get into Tim's head? I think he was just that kind of guy. He had a drinking problem and life didn't turn out the way he wanted. He was sort of a much darker version of Archie Bunker and he took it out on his family, as you witnessed.

DC: The episode flashed back to April 1, 1963, the night Tim and Lena Spencer both perished. Why was it important to tie Luke, Bobbie (Jackie Zeman) and Patricia's origin story to the day General Hospital premiered?

RC: The reason it was important, was to delve into the history of a character who is so iconic and so tied to the history of the show. If we were going to take a look behind the curtain and reveal how Luke came to be, it seemed so fitting that the origin should tie back to the first day of the show because Luke is such an integral part of the show. It just made sense to us that it should tie back to that specific day. 

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DC: Soap operas tend to celebrate milestone anniversaries. Your 40th, your 50th, or even your 45th. You guys decided to honor the 52nd anniversary. Will you continue to mark each anniversary with special episodes?

RC: I would love to. I hesitate to promise that we will because I know someone will come back and remind me if we don't do it. It is a monumental task to take on. We have to write 260 of these a year. We spent a lot of time working on this one, both on the writing and, as you saw, on the production. Devoting that kind of time, love, energy and effort into one show is a lot in a genre like ours. That said, I love to mark the anniversary, especially in a medium like this where shows can go on 30, 40, 50 years. Those big numbers that you said were important, but I would love it in some way if we can always sort of honor the anniversary.

DC: Anthony Geary played a dual role in Wednesday's show. Adult Luke, suffering from a psychotic break, recalled the night his father, also played by Geary, set in motion the destruction of their family. I know Geary is one of those actors with whom it's very important for him to like the material. What did he think of playing Luke and his father in the same episode?

RC: He was excited the moment I mentioned it. We had the idea we would look back and see what happened in the past and would need an actor to play Young Luke at 16-years-old roughly. Then I suddenly thought, "Wait a second. What if Tony plays the father?" In a way, you'd be watching this very important show that's tied to the history of the show, but you'd be seeing all new faced. It had been Luke's story all along and then all of the sudden I'm taking the story away from Tony and giving it to this 16-year-old actor. That's when it occurred to me to have him play the dad. It made perfect sense. The dad is so tied to who Fluke is. In a way, Fluke is the father — the part of the father that is inside Luke. When we hit upon that one thing, we were like, "Of course, Tony should play the father!" I mentioned it to Tony and he just lit up. He said, "I'll put a rinse in my hair and do a mustache!" He just saw it right away.

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DC: So much of the Fluke story dealt with this larger-than-life villain who was fronting the mob and trying to commit mass murders on boats, but it wrapped as a really quiet family drama. What was the motivation for going small and domestic at the end of this story?

RC: I think you really hit upon something there. It was important that the back story unfolded, as you said, in that almost quiet way. The character of Fluke was so outrageous, once we revealed this was Luke the plot automatically could not be about a microchip, or a mask. It's not about a twin. It's about the man. That sort of necessitated that it should be a very internal story; a smaller, quieter story than how it began.

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DC: Which do you prefer to write? You're kind of known for telling these larger-than-life, over-the-top stories, but this quiet story ending was epic. In my opinion, it was just as epic as the end of the [Jerry Jacks] water story, or something bigger and splashier. What kind of stories do you prefer as a writer, the more Mad Men style stories, or the bigger, higher stakes stories?

RC: There's a certain element of fun that goes into telling something larger-than-life that you can really sink your teeth into as a writer. We have a lot of fun as writers coming up with the plot twists and those big moments. Obviously it's something I like to do and we have a lot of fun doing it. That being said, I think what makes you connect to these stories are the characters and what they are going through. I said it a million times working on One Life to Live, "You can send Viki to Mars as long as she acts like Viki." I enjoy both [kinds of stories]. It was a real thrill to dig in and work on this episode. I wrote it with Dan O'Connor, he wrote the outline, and Elizabeth Korte, who's our editor. She wrote the script. It was a labor of love. I loved being able to have that pause. Our show is always going at such a breakneck pace. Even though a lot happened in this episode, it felt like we hit the pause button and, as you said, it was a very quiet episode. It was very sad. One of the reasons people watch this show is to be moved, to cry and to feel something. Hopefully that's how the audience felt watching this episode. 

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DC: Laura Wright, who plays Carly Corinthos Jacks, is known for this in-your-face, ballsy character on GH, yet she was chosen to play Lena Eckert Spencer in the special episode. She brought the character to life with such sensitivity, sadness and a bit of pathos. I always assumed both Spencer parents were kind of trashy and rowdy. Lena, however, came off almost like a tragic Donna Reed. Does this explain Luke's three-decade desire to save an "Angel" named Laura (Genie Francis)?

RC: I don't know if that occurred to me. It does make sense. It makes sense for the character of Luke, I think, because you see both of those parents in Luke. The Luke that we've gotten to know over the years...he wouldn't be so beloved if he didn't have that sweet, gentle side. I think that's what comes from the mother. The guy who's running off on adventures and sometimes doesn't treat women so well, it comes from the father. I think Tony played so beautifully how overcome Luke was to see his mother, to sort of be reliving that. This is someone he really loved and, as you saw, feels he let down, even though it was a horrible accident. So yeah, maybe there is something he saw of his mother in Laura, that gentle side? I thought Laura did a beautiful job. Lena couldn't be more night and day from Carly, and yet she did it so naturally. You really felt for this woman. When you think about it in theory, "What if Carly plays the mother?" You're setting Tony Geary and Laura Wright up to play a couple and you're like, "Is that gonna work? Is that ballsy, in-your-face actress/character gonna work playing this abused woman?" I thought she did a beautiful, beautiful job. You really felt Lena's love for her family. I think that tied her to Carly, because of how fiercely she loves her kids.

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DC: Jason Thompson, Becky Herbst and Ryan Carnes recreated the iconic roles of Dr. Steve Hardy, Nurse Jessie Brewer and her husband Phil respectively for the episode. How much detail went into those hospital scenes and ensuring their transformations were accurate?

RC: As to the whole production [side] of it, you should probably speak to [executive producer] Frank Valentini. From what I know and understand about what went on...first of all, we write these things and we ask a lot of production every day. When we can, we try to make it as simple for them as possible. My thought was that we would just use the hospital set that we have today and do it in black-and-white and maybe it would look like 1963. Frank, of course, said, "No, it's not gonna look good at all!" [Laughs] He then set about, with our great crew, to create this brand new set based on General Hospital: 1963. Our set design people worked on that. Our costume designers had to make what Steve Hardy and Phil Brewer wore. They couldn't find anything to duplicate it! Hair and makeup was amazing. I thought Becky looked just like a dead-on Jessie Brewer! I believe the actors watched the first show so they could get a handle on how they were supposed to act and what they were supposed to sound like. I thought it just worked perfectly. It wasn't an imitation exactly; more like an homage to those actors and characters. 

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DC: Speaking of actors, the three who played child versions of the Spencers were incredible, specifically Young Patricia (Chloe Lanier) and Young Luke (Joey Luthman).  Will we see those performers turn up in modern day Port Charles?

RC: I know that's something that has happened on soaps before. You could probably tell me, but wasn't Young Clone Reva turned into a lead character on that show?

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DC: Yes! Bethany Joy Lenz played teenage Clone Reva on Guiding Light. They loved her so much, they brought her on as Michelle Bauer!

RC: I think on One Life to Live there were characters too from the 1888 storyline and they liked the actors, so they brought them on in 1988. I want to comment first on Mark Teschner, who's our casting director. He's amazing. He found those actors to play Young Patricia and Young Luke. I thought they were outstanding. You think about it on paper and you need to find the right kid who's going to bring Luke Spencer to life. I think he really did that. He had enough of a physical resemblance that you could buy it. The actress who played Patricia was a real standout. You really just felt for this girl instantly. She was vulnerable. She was strong. I don't know what their circumstances are, but we were very taken with the actors. Certainly there's a chance you could see them again.

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DC: I have to admit, when I saw the casting of Dee Wallace, I rolled my eyes. In jaded soap blogger mode, I tend to do that when there's a big name from film or sitcoms cast on a soap. As soap fans, we always want the Erika Slezak, or the Robin Strasser or someone from a previous soap. Dee, however, was great. My take home from this was the ultimate Spencer hero was a heroine. It was Pat. It's always been Luke saving the day, but Dee, in conjunction with the young actress, really brought home the truth of this family, which is Patricia saved the day. Will we be seeing more of Wallace and Pat?

RC: You'll see how it unfolds in the next two episodes. We've been talking about Patricia for a long time now. The casting was important and something the audience had been speculating about and throwing names around. We had all those same conversations you guys have. "Who should it be?" Should it be a soap legend?" We explored all of those possibilities. Mark Teschner brought us a group of actresses to look at and there was something about Dee Wallace. The moment I saw her, I just felt like, "Wow, that's Patricia". What you got from Dee was the side of the mother. Her love for Luke was so clear and powerful, like Lena's had been. It didn't feel like a stunt cast to me. She was an actress who was proposed to us and was who we were looking for.

In Part 2 of my interview with Ron Carlivati, we discuss what the revelations from Luke Spencer's past mean for soap's most beloved antihero's future.  Look for it Thursday night!