Recently, Maurice Benard sat down with Soap Opera Digest to talk about his incredible run playing leading man -- and dark anti-hero -- Sonny Corinthos for an impressive 30 years and counting. Benard made his debut as Sonny on August 13, 1993, but he was no stranger to soap operas. Previously, Benard played Nico Kelly from 1987-90 on one of ABC's other popular soap operas, All My Children.
In those early days, Benard admits that he hadn't been looking for a career in daytime television. "I was out of work for about two years," Benard said. He revealed, "It was kind of a real dark period because there was no money coming in and all I did was study acting. I wasn't taking my medication [Benard had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 22] at the time."
Benard recalled the opportunities that he'd had during this period -- including a part that ultimately went to Antonio Banderas in the 1993 blockbuster Philadelphia. Benard had been offered a part on General Hospital, and when he'd told his wife, Paula, he had made it clear that he had no desire to return to soap operas because it would seem to him like he had failed. "I didn't accomplish what I wanted to accomplish," Benard explained. However, Benard's wife reminded her husband that they were broke, so he agreed to meet with Producer Wendy Riche and Producer/Director Shelley Curtis.
"They said, 'We have two roles for you. One is Damien Smith, for two years.' I said, 'I don't think that's going to work. I don't want to be here two years. What's the other one?' And Shelly said, 'Sonny, a nightclub owner.' I said, 'Oh Sonny, that's a cool name. How long is that? Six months? Yeah, I'll take that.' And that's how it started," Benard recounted.
From the start, it was clear that Sonny was a short-term character. "Sonny was bad," Benard said. "Fans despised my character. He did things to a 16-year old," Benard recalled. Indeed, Sonny exploited Karen Wexler (Cari Shayne) by getting her addicted to drugs then forcing her to strip in exchange for a steady supply. Benard recognized that his own personal turmoil had bled into his performances. "I could not help his pain from coming out. I was going through a breakdown when I first started and playing this dark character was affecting me. I'll never forget a scene I had with Cari Shayne where she was crying, telling me that her stepfather abused her, and then I started getting teary-eyed and emotional. And that's not the character! It was my own life, art imitating life," Benard said.
Benard's mental health reached a breaking point a few weeks into his run as Sonny, and he quit the show. "If I had done Philadelphia with all those big actors and everything and had a nervous breakdown there, that might have ended my career," Benard reflected. Benard acknowledged that times have changed, but in those days, mental health struggles had been taboo. "I was going to have a breakdown no matter what, at whatever job I had, but the fact that it was Wendy and Shelley [in charge of the show] saved my ass completely," Benard said.
Benard revealed that he had received support from Riche and Curtis, and by the time the six-month contract had expired, he had grown to like the character, the actors, and the people behind the cameras. He agreed to stick around, but he also realized that changes would be necessary in order for the character to survive. "So I started bringing even more pain so the audience felt for Sonny. It took a while and then, when Sonny got with Brenda [Barrett; played by Vanessa Marcil] that was it," Benard recalled.
Sonny and Brenda quickly reached supercouple status, and it turned Benard into a heartthrob and an icon on the show and in the genre. "I'm not going to lie to you. When you have a big ego like I had early on, that's what you strive for," Benard said. Benard briefly exited the role in 1997, but he was back full-time by the end of 1998. Enter the era of Carson (Carly and Sonny).
"I couldn't wait to work with Sarah [Joy Brown who had originated the role in 1996], but I wasn't thinking it was going to be like a Vanessa thing," Benard said. "I didn't necessarily think it was going to work. I really didn't. But I was pleasantly surprised," Benard shared. When Brown exited the role and Tamara Braun took over (2001-05), he was confident that "Carson" would continue to go strong. "I'm in a different place now; I'm 60 years old and I've been there for 85 years," he teasingly said.
"But the way I was, I was gonna make anything work. So when Tamara came in, we worked hard trying to make this thing work. It took at least a year. A lot of it had to do with story, but it wasn't easy in the beginning," Benard recalled. After Braun left in 2005, Jennifer Bransford briefly took over, but a few months later Laura Wright stepped into the role. "Laura was a powerhouse coming in and doing what she does. I was just on the outside looking in! And at the time, the writing was great for Jason [Morgan; played by Steve Burton], Carly, and Sonny. It was the perfect storm and it all worked out and here we are almost 20 years later," Benard said.
According to Benard, he nearly didn't make it as long as he had. "I had a conversation with Tony Geary [Luke Spencer] when I was 15 years into the job. I said, 'Tony, I can't do this anymore, man. I'm exhausted, I'm done,' I said, 'How did you do it?' He said, 'Maurice, I left. I would leave for five years. You haven't left!'," Benard recalled. Benard revealed that Executive Producer Frank Valentini's overhaul of the show's production schedule had pulled Benard back from the brink of burnout.
"Before, the show was different -- eight-page scenes. I was working four or five days a week, no matter what. Frank changed the whole format of the show. I was not working as much, there's not as much dialogue. That really helped me," Benard admitted. Benard acknowledged that he is also in a different place in his life. Like Sonny, Benard is both a father and a grandfather, so his approach to work is different.
"I'm more relaxed. I was about 70 percent in the moment in the past. Now that I'm older, I'm almost 95 percent present," Benard explained. Benard pointed out that Sonny, too, has changed because Sonny has experienced tremendous loss not only with the death of Stone Cates [Michael Sutton] during Sonny's early years, but also the deaths of his son Morgan Corinthos (Bryan Craig) and his father, Mike Corbin (Max Gail). Each had had a profound effect on Sonny, and the latter had led to Sonny waking up as "Mike" in Nixon Falls and meeting Sonny's current love interest, Nina Reeves (Cynthia Watros).
Reflecting on his longevity and popularity, Benard is grateful. "I appreciate that," he said. "I think everybody knows that the fans and I, we just connect. I love connecting with them. The fans are a big deal to me. They always have been," Benard shared. Benard grew emotional when asked what he thought the Maurice Benard in 1993 would think of him hitting a 30-year milestone as the infamous dimpled don of Port Charles.
"That depends," Benard said. "When I was talking to Tony, I would have said, 'There's no way in hell!' I've always had a love/hate relationship with acting, but now [his voice cracked with emotion] I'm learning to appreciate the [work] family that I have. That's a big deal for me. GH is not just a job. It's like my second family," Benard shared.
Things are heating up for Sonny in Port Charles these days. He has an enemy lurking in the wings, and his current flame is keeping an explosive secret. If that's any indication, Sonny's reign is not coming to an end anytime soon.
Have you been watching Sonny since the beginning? Are you hoping they keep good stories coming for him for years to come? We want to hear from you -- so drop your comments in the Comments section below, tweet about it on Twitter, share it on Facebook, or chat about it on our Message Boards.