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Tuesday, April 2, 2013 - Page updated at 04:30 a.m.

Q&A: As ‘General Hospital’ turns 50, a talk with Maurice Benard

By Chuck Barney
Contra Costa Times

On Monday, the ABC soap opera “General Hospital” celebrates its 50th anniversary (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. 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. 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.