Maurice Benard: The Gangster with a Heart

On ABC’s General Hospital, mob boss Sonny Corinthos has killed many people. But Maurice Benard, the actor who makes his tight-lipped menace so convincing, has a bigger heart than the character he plays.

In his new autobiography, Maurice Benard: Nothing General About it, Benard, a soap superstar, chronicles an actor’s life of love and pain in which Sonny is just one of his greatest hits. The other, and even bigger, is the love he shares with his wife Paula, in a marriage that, as he writes about it, is stronger and lovelier than any team of writers could invent.

The book’s subtitle – How Love (And Lithium) Saved Me On And Off General Hospital — summarizes the story perfectly.
This fluidly conversational, frankly detailed memoir is replete with behind the scenes insights, telling anecdotes and recollections of deep depression and hallucinations that seem to leave nothing out.

Benard’s plain- spoken descriptions tell us, for example, how it was working with “the great Anthony ‘Tony’ Geary,” his partner in crime on screen, dear friend off. “…but let me say he scared the hell out of me initially.”

Then there was beautiful, much in demand soap magazine cover girl Vanessa Marcil as girlfriend Brenda. “From the minute we both touched the same suitcase on the dock … it was inevitable. Fans ate it up.” A remote in which Sonny and Brenda romanced in the Caribbean proved to be one of GH’s most highly rated episodes.

And Steve Burton as Sonny’s sidekick Jason (they were like Batman and Robin, he says), is said to have wanted more challenge than being a Quartermaine provided. His remedy was to take method acting lessons from Benard.

For most of his 57 years, Benard has fought the agonies of bipolar disorder, the inherited illness once commonly known by the derisively descriptive label “manic depression.” For the past 20 years, he has been heroically open about his fight against the disease. He’s been praised for his candor by mental health organizations, and thanked by fellow sufferers.

Most of all, however, this memoir, like all good operas, is a love story. The heroine is Benard’s wife Paula, the patient, ever loving soulmate he credits with saving him from taking a much darker path.

He writes: “I’m grateful that I met the love of my life when I was 22 and eventually got to marry her in spite of the many obstacles we faced.” Without her, he says, “I’d probably be dead.”

They met in his native San Francisco when she was only 17, and married two years later. Today they are the parents of four children: son Joshua and daughters Cassidy, Cailey and Heather.

The lithium of the subtitle is, of course, the medication that has helped so many bipolar sufferers stabilize their lives since it was introduced decades ago. Many still regard it as a life-saving wonder drug. Life before and after lithium is usually very different – the tumultuous before followed by the relatively steady after.
By the time Benard met his future wife, he had already been hospitalized once and diagnosed with manic depression. He credits a psychiatrist named Dr. Noonan with giving him his first lithium prescription, and evidently his first successful medical treatment.

Lithium has been a through-line in his life drama since then. “I’ve been on lithium for years,” he says. “Without it, I would have no family or career.”

There were periods of time, he admits, in which he decided he could get along without lithium – decisions he lived to regret. He admits: “I had fooled myself into the biggest lie of all, believing I didn’t need lithium anymore.” Happily, through it all, the patient Paula was there for him.

This openness, in published articles and numerous television appearances, has been praised by the mental health community as a great public service, an enormous help to other bipolar sufferers and their families who need to know they aren’t alone, and that help is available.

Back in the day, celebrities and public figures who suffered with mental illnesses tried to keep their problems private, even secret if possible. Bemard was advised to do the same. And he did, keeping to himself bouts of deep depression, nightmares and even heard voices in the night.

He landed his first big role in 1987, playing what he calls “a young rough type” named Nico Kelly on “All My Children.”

He writes: “The ‘All My Children’ producers had no idea I suffered from bipolar disorder, because an acting coach had told me not to tell people about it or I would never get hired. I sure as hell wasn’t going to screw up my big chance, so I hid it and hid it well.”

He continued the secrecy when he joined the “General Hospital” cast in 1993 and became Sonny. The show’s creative team understood his sometimes dark temperament as merely the personality of a method actor. Meanwhile, the voices in the night continued, and became more insistent. “No one knew I was starting a downhill spiral,” he confides, “not even me.”

Benard says he had a breakdown on the set a few weeks after assuming the role of Sonny in 1993. “I began hearing voices,” he writes. “I was completely delusional.”

This posed a challenge for the producers and writers: Benard was a sensation almost from the first day. It was clear he was destined to own the role as surely as Al Pacino owned Michael Corleone.

So they made a brave decision: they gave Sonny the disease, too. And it worked – for Benard as well as for the show.

He writes: “Even though it was scary, in 2000 I decided to do an interview in an obscure soap magazine …the response was overwhelming…”

Among the many fans who responded, he says, was “a kid … telling me his brother had shot himself in the head and he was finally able to deal with his brother’s suicide after I talked about bipolar and where the depths of depression can take you.”

Encouraged by this outpouring of appreciation of his openness, Benard became active in several mental health organizations, including serving as spokesman for the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance.

Meanwhile, Sonny’s life as a bipolar mobster went on, too, and for the actor, it was a daily march in tandem. “Soap acting isn’t easy,” he advises. “It is a five day a week job. One must devote all one’s attention to the role through very long work days.”

Sonny had to be a fearsome mob chief — but also a tender, loving husband, son and loyal friend.

Being bipolar is generational. On GH, Sonny and Carly (Laura Wright) had a son named Morgan (Bryan Craig) who inherited his father’s disease. Yet he did not take care of himself. In one of the most chilling soap opera sequences ever, a despondent Morgan climbed to the roof of General Hospital, stood on a ledge and threatened to jump. Sonny followed and tried desperately to persuade him to come down. In a moment of pathos, however, Morgan jumped.

Evidently, the attempt was unsuccessful, because – after all, this is soap opera – Morgan survived to do himself in another day. His ghost still haunts Sonny and Carly.

Benard’s candid autobiography is invaluable both to soap fans and fellow bipolar sufferers. He’s shown there’s a way to live successfully with this sometimes fatal disease. By playing Sonny – and being himself at the same time – he’s been and still is a stellar role model to all who suffer.

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