'General Hospital': 50 Years Old, Dramatic As Ever

The soap opera General Hospital turns 50 this year. Host Rachel Martin speaks with actress Jane Elliot, who has played Tracy Quartermaine on the show since 1978.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Fifty years ago tomorrow...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: ...a young doctor named Steve Hardy at a hospital on the East Coast. He's caring for a young woman whose face has been ravaged in a motorcycle accident.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GENERAL HOSPITAL")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) Steve, you can involve yourself in this girl's life if you want to.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Angie) You tried not to look shocked but you were. You couldn't hide it.

JOHN BERADINO: (as Steve Hardy) You were wrong about me, Angie.

MARTIN: That was the very first episode of "General Hospital," which premiered April 1, 1963. The soap's spectacular plots involve all of the best cliches - death is very rarely permanent, and it's really hard to nail down who your parents are. But GH, as it's called among super-fans, is also credited with the creation of the first super couple, Laura and Luke. Their first wedding in 1981 set a daytime record - 30 million people watched.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GENERAL HOSPITAL")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) We are gathered here to celebrate the marriage of two people, but we're doing more than that. We are celebrating life itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: These days, "General Hospital" is only one of four soaps still airing new episodes. Jane Elliot plays one of the characters who have been around forever, Tracy Quartermaine, who began as the badly behaved daughter of the rich Quartermaine clan. Today, Tracy is still reviled, but we'll let Jane Elliot fill you in on what's happening in Tracy's life right now.

JANE ELLIOT: She's not married, she regrets not being married and she is fighting for control of her father's company. And the person that she is fighting is her once-dead, now-returned from the dead nephew, A.J.

MARTIN: You have played Tracy Quartermaine, the spoiled - I think we can say that, it's fair - scheming daughter of the Quartermaine clan.

ELLIOT: I don't know what you're talking about.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You have played Tracy on and off since 1978. What do you think you have learned over the years about the skills required to play the same character for so long?

ELLIOT: Well, you sort of live her life in real time. You get married when she gets married and you have babies when she has babies and as I age, she ages. As I get wrinkles on my face, she gets wrinkles on her face; as I gain weight, she gains weight. So, it's the same technique to be authentic, to just come into work every day and have that moment be your reality. I live two lives: I live Tracy Quartermaine's on camera and I live my life in the real world every other hour. And I'm perfectly happy to do it. I love to play let's pretend.

MARTIN: And it is a fantasy. I mean, I am just guessing that Tracy's life is a little more exciting that your own.

ELLIOT: You don't know that.

(LAUGHTER)

ELLIOT: It's definitely more challenging.

MARTIN: You're right. I don't.

ELLIOT: And I think I have more people liking me than she does. We just did this bit of staging where everybody had to gather around the stage and sort of have a kumbaya moment, you know, a touchy-feely moment. And I looked around the room and there was nobody for Tracy Quartermaine to stand next to. There was nobody there that liked her. That is not my life. My life, Jane's life, is much richer than that.

MARTIN: You have also been on other soaps. What is it like coming back to Tracy Quartermaine after you've been away from her for a while?

ELLIOT: Home. It's just home. There are people there that were there the day I started. There's a boom operator still there. There are engineers. There are prop people. This word is so overused, but there is nothing that applies more appropriately than family.

MARTIN: That's the Emmy-winning Jane Elliot. She has played Tracy Quartermaine on "General Hospital" since 1978. Ms. Elliot, thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.

ELLIOT: Thank you so much. For me as well.

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