James Franco? The movie star? On daytime television?
Franco, one of Judd Apatow's original proteges, first came to national attention on the television show Freaks and Geeks. He later earned a Golden Globe for his portrayal of James Dean and played a supervillain in the Spider-Man franchise. Last year he played a drug dealer in Pineapple Express and won acclaim for his role opposite Oscar winner Sean Penn in Milk.
So what's he doing on General Hospital?
Jill Farren-Phelps, executive producer of the ABC daytime drama, is happily puzzled about it herself.
"We too thought, 'Really? He wants to do a soap? Really?' " Farren-Phelps says, adding that no deal-making or sweet-talking was required.
In fact, the idea came from Franco's camp: His manager, Miles Levy, brought the idea to the show. (Levy also manages Steve Burton, who plays General Hospital bad boy Jason Morgan.)
"The truth of the matter is that James is not in any kind of box," Farren-Phelps says. "I think that is part of why he's here."
Bigger than Daytime
Whether Franco is scratching an itch or researching something for his next role is anybody's guess: He's not giving interviews. He has mentioned that this experiment is kind of like "performance art," a notion one of his collaborators has expanded on elsewhere. It's more than just a cameo role, though: He spent three days on the set, which means his character — oh-so-originally named Franco — will hang around Port Charles through at least the start of 2010.
If James Franco won't share what's in this sideline for him, the benefit for Farren-Phelps and the folks at General Hospital is obvious. Elizabeth Taylor was the last movie star to stir this much excitement on the ABC daytime drama, when she crashed Luke and Laura's wedding.
"We think it has sort of a cool factor that definitely freshens the image of daytime," Farren-Phelps says. And daytime needs some freshening: It's no secret that soaps are in a state of depression, with ratings down across the industry.
Star Turn Won't Keep Casual Fans Tuning In
"It takes a lot to actually get people engaged on a full-time basis with one of these shows," says Samuel Ford, who has lectured on soaps at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He says one rebel Hollywood actor won't do much to breathe life back into General Hospital.
"A lot of times, audiences shift in and watch for the short term," Ford says. But because they have no support group to watch this show with and talk to about it, they shift back out."
Regardless, General Hospital is keeping Franco's storyline open. If he ever wants to give up movies, Farren-Phelps says, he'll always have a home in Port Charles.