Today, GH is slated to air a special, stand-alone episode celebrating the life of Sean Donely and his beloved portrayer, John Reilly, who passed away on January 9.
The seeds for this highly anticipated special episode were planted back in January, when John Reilly’s daughter, TikTok star Caitlin Reilly, shared the news of his death at the age of 86.
Begins Executive Producer Frank Valentini, “When we heard that John Reilly had passed away, the writers and I were discussing a way that we could honor him. We thought maybe we could dedicate an episode [to his memory], and I said, ‘It feels like it’s something that could be a little bit bigger. Why don’t you guys take some time about it?’ And then they came up with the idea to do a whole show around it, with all of our fan favorites being involved — Felicia, Scorpio, Mac, Anna — and we just thought that could be kind of interesting. They put together the entire idea for the show, and when we were talking about casting it, I knew that Caitlin Reilly was an actress and we just reached out and asked if she wanted to be part of it. She was really flattered and so eager to do it. She was just amazing to work with; very, very touched by what we were doing to honor her dad. I think it was also important because it’s also a way for the people who still work on the show who knew John and were very fond of John to sort of mourn the loss of his life. People got to tell stories and it was a lovely day. Everybody worked really hard on it and we put a lot of muscle and a lot of money behind this episode, so I’m excited for the audience.”
According to Co-Head Writer Chris Van Etten, the idea of devoting a full hour to the memorial “was a no-brainer, because John Reilly and his portrayal of Sean are, I think, emblematic of a period of the show’s history that really helped to shape the culture of GENERAL HOSPITAL, and how it became GENERAL HOSPITAL in the eye of the public. It was a time of high adventure and a lot of humor, and we thought it would really be remiss not to honor the contribution he made to the show’s history, to its legacy, and to honor the contribution he made to the canvas in the time he was on the show. But in order to honor Sean, we needed to make sure that the people who were important to Sean were available to be a part of that show, and we got as many of them as we could in the time frame that we could do it.” That includes returning faves Kimberly McCullough as Robin and Kristina Wagner as Felicia, who haven’t been seen since 2018 and 2020, respectively — as well as a top-secret surprise guest. Enthuses Van Etten, “I’m super-excited to see some of the people who we haven’t seen in a while come back to honor their friend.”
Picks up Co-Head Writer Dan O’Connor, “Once we figured out the timing of it, it just became a question of, what type of story do you tell to honor the character of Sean, and the actor, John? And we spent some time making sure that we found a story for the episode that would honor not only the character of Sean, but the type of stories that he was part of throughout his tenure on the show.” Van Etten shares, “We wanted to try to evoke the tone that his stories had back in the height of his tenure, one; and we also wanted to make sure that our long-term viewers, who really remember the rascally Sean who really had a twinkle in his eye and that rough-hewn quality to his voice, we wanted to conjure up that spirit so that our viewers who have been with us long enough got a great blast from the past. But also, [we wanted] those viewers who may be newer and may not be totally familiar with the contribution that he made to the show to really get a sense of how his presence on the show built what the show is today.”
The character Caitlin Reilly will be playing, Annie, Sean’s daughter, will be pivotal to this mission. Explains Van Etten, “When we were so fortunate to find out that Caitlin was game for this, it seemed like we had a great opportunity to give the audience a glimpse of a greater GENERAL HOSPITAL universe, so that John Reilly and Sean may be gone, but his character lives on in another character, and that she is able to help give his legacy new life, new breath, going into the future of GENERAL HOSPITAL.”
Annie will prove to be every bit as resourceful and spunky as fans would expect, given that her parents are Sean and Tiffany. Offers O’Connor, “I think for the audience that maybe was not watching at a certain point of the show, it was important for us that the character of Annie embody not just the characteristics of Sean that we are honoring, but also Tiffany, as well, in a way that blends them together and we get the best of both worlds in a way that pays tribute to this very popular couple on the show.”
Reilly greatly enjoyed slipping into the shoes of her real-life dad’s fictional daughter, enthusing, “She is super-fascinating and cool and I’m not going to give away her story or what’s going on, [but] it’s super-interesting. It’s definitely the beginning of something for her, which is really cool. She’s developing this very interesting relationship with Finola’s [Hughes] character, Anna, who she is named after, and so that could go somewhere. Who knows? We’ll see! But she’s definitely wanting to follow in her father’s footsteps.”
“We were so thankful to have Caitlin,” says Valentini. “She was just really special and made the connection. And we want to thank her family, who provided us with some great photographs of John. Just being able to sort of intrude on the celebration of his life was very generous.”
According to Caitlin, the Reilly family was touched by GH’s decision to focus a show on her father. “I think it shows what an incredible guy he was,” she shares. “In the grand scope of soap careers, he was only on the show for 11 years, but I think he left a huge mark on the show and a huge mark on the soap opera world. He had big energy and he was incredibly kind and also just very, very passionate about the art of acting and the stories. It’s just so incredible that they wanted to honor him with an entire episode. My family and I are so incredibly thankful for that. I was speaking to Frank after I had wrapped for the day and I just couldn’t stop thanking him because it really felt like a memorial for me, a memorial that I personally had not had yet [the family is waiting to have an in-person memorial due to Covid]. That is how the entire day felt. And that was really special and cathartic. I felt able to participate and connect with him and feel super-close with him and celebrate his life and his legacy.”
Hughes also found great meaning in participating in the tribute to both actor and character. “I like the way that they’ve done this,” she notes. “It’s really quite clever and sweet. We all had a fantastic time [shooting it]. We were all sad, but it was really nice to sort of all come together and participate in him and remembering him. John was great to work with. I loved it, always, working with him. He was an amazing support. He was the first person to come up to me when I started, just came over and said, ‘Look, anything you need, I’m here for you. I’ll look after you.’ And he did. And he did that with Kristina [Wagner], too; we were talking about that, actually, how he looked out for us.”
What stands out to Hughes most about sharing the stage with Reilly, she says, “is his ultimate professionalism. John would run lines until you were blue in the face. He was so happy to work and run lines. I would go into his room, or I would sit in the hallway outside his room, and we would sort of learn the lines together and see what would work, and changed stuff — of course, we were allowed to change so much and improvise and add lines and do whatever we wanted back then. And so we would discuss the scene over and over, like, ‘What are we doing here? What does this mean, what does that mean?’ And he would get into the nitty-gritty, more so than anybody. He just loved to pull it all apart. He would get this quizzical look on his face and in that really gravelly kind of voice of his he would say, ‘Yeah, I’m just not sure about this,’ and he would puzzle it out. I mean, those two — him and Tristan [Rogers, Robert] — that is how I learned to navigate this whole medium. I used to always feel really satisfied when we had scenes together.”
Valentini came away from shooting the show with a deeper understanding, and new appreciation, for Reilly. “[At GH] we are about all of the things that Sean represented in real life and on the canvas — love, adventure, family, legacy,” he notes. “Also, things sort of overlapped with that character and real life, listening to Finola and Tristan talk about John and what a terrific guy he was and all the funny things he would do. It was really sweet. We all got the sense that we knew him a lot better. And I had never worked with him, so I had never known him, but I watched him with [Sharon Wyatt’s] Tiffany and thought they were such terrific actors.”
And he’s incredibly proud of the finished result. “There was so much going into it, so much that went into preparing and writing the show so that’s why we’re excited about it,” Valentini explains. “It’s a great stand-alone show, it’s a great week for viewers old and new, and it’s a great arc for the beginning of summer.” Indeed, the hour will have longer-lasting storyline implications. Teases Van Etten, “Sean’s death brings an air of reminiscence, but also of mystery as Port Charles gathers to honor their friend — but Sean Donely was not without enemies, let us remember this. And danger lurks around every corner.”
Elaborates O’Connor, “This episode is honoring the past and honoring Sean Donely’s role on the show, but it also plants seeds for a dramatic climax that is coming our way this month, as well. There are ripple effects that come from it that go into the show moving forward.” Valentini hopes that lapsed viewers will tune in, as well. “I hope some of the fans who haven’t watched in a while realize that the characters that they knew and love still exist in Port Charles and are doing exciting, vibrant, compelling, familial, loving stories,” he says. “So come on back! The water’s warm.”