Daytime Emmy-winner Hillary B. Smith was a fan fave on ONE LIFE TO LIVE as Nora Hanen Gannon Buchanan from 1992 through to the show’s 2012 finale, and reprised the role on Prospect Park’s 2013 OLTL revival. Now, she’s slipping back into lawyer mode to cross Nora over to Port Charles. She gave Digest the scoop on her GH visit, which kicks off in early March.
Soap Opera Digest: Take us back to when this all began, when you looked down at your phone and saw that Frank Valentini, GH’s executive producer and your former ONE LIFE boss, was calling.
Hillary B. Smith: Well, it was around Christmas, and it’s typical for us to touch base with each other at some point or another. I had just heard about the Prospect Park/ABC [case] being decided, but it didn’t occur to me that he would be calling me with this! He said, “So, you’re living in Florida. How in Florida are you?” I said, “Why?” He said, “Well, the rights [to the OLTL characters] have been awarded back to ABC and we were thinking about bringing Nora on. Would you like to come play with us for a little bit?” I was like, “Is it going to be fun?” And he said, “Yes.” And I went, “Done. I’ll go. As long as it’s fun. I’m all about fun now.” And you know what? It was fun!
Digest: When you heard that the lawsuit was over, did you have any sense that a resurrection of Nora could be in the offing?
Smith: No! I didn’t think in terms of a resurrection of Nora at all. I just was glad to have the whole thing done and decided. It was just kind of an unfortunate situation all the way around for everybody, so I was really glad that it was over. So, to get that call was a really lovely surprise. I was touched that Frank thought of me.
Digest: After that first call with Frank, did you think that Nora’s visit to Port Charles would really come to fruition?
Smith: I hung up the phone and I said to [husband] Nip, “That was Frank.” He goes, “Oh, how’s Frank doing?” And I told him the conversation and he went, “Well, that’s kind of interesting.” And I said, “Yeah, we’ll see what happens.” There’s so many things that can go wrong; sometimes you step out of your brainstorm and go, “I don’t know what I was thinking. This isn’t going to work at all.” And that’s fine, you know? But I was not packing my bags, that’s for sure. Then, when he came back with everything a little more concrete and set in stone, like, “Okay, these are the days [we’d need you],” I was like, “Whoa, okay! Let’s see if we can make this work!”And we did.
Digest: What did it mean to you that Nora was the first character from ONE LIFE or ALL MY CHILDREN to be brought on to GH since the lawsuit was settled?
Smith: It is very, very flattering, because it’s a character that I created on camera. The fact that she was so beloved and that they felt that she still had enough of a fan base to bring her back, it’s incredibly flattering — and also, I must say, a little scary, like, “Oh, gosh, there’s some expectation here!” You don’t want to let anyone down, so from that standpoint, I was a little nervous. I felt like I was going and acting with the big kids because GENERAL HOSPITAL was sort of the jewel in the crown on ABC. I certainly wanted to make Frank proud; I certainly didn’t want to embarrass him. Can you imagine? Oh, my God, he makes this big gesture and then I go and I can’t remember the lines and I can’t fit into the costume and I can’t walk in heels? That, though, was true [laughs]. I was having a really hard time walking in heels!
Digest: Were you anxious about getting back into the swing of memorizing so much dialogue?
Smith: Yeah! I’ve always prided myself on my memory and being able to handle huge amounts of dialogue, you know, 60-to-80 pages of courtroom dialogue in a day. But when I got the scripts and I hit print and watched the printer print out all these pages, I was like, “Uh-oh. This isn’t good [laughs]!” I was a little scared, but once I got the hang of it again, I was on my way. I was working with some really professional, smart, talented people, and there was a bar that was set pretty high and I did the best I could.
Digest: Did you feel that GH’s co-head writ-ers, Jean Passanante and Shelly Altman, captured Nora’s voice well?
Smith: Yes, it was absolutely dead-on, smack-on. I opened up the first script and was like, “This is really good dialogue.” I’m a big Shelly and Jean fan from when they worked on ONE LIFE TO LIVE, and there were a couple more writers on staff [at GH] that had come through ONE LIFE TO LIVE, so that was really fun.
Digest: Frank broke the news of your imminent GH arrival on Twitter. What’s the story behind that video?
Smith: That kind of was spur of the moment. When I walked in, one of the first people I saw was Roger Howarth [Franco; ex-Todd, OLTL]. Frank was with me and said, “You don’t see her.” Roger went, “Okay, well, I’m really happy not to see you!” I gave him a hug and then the second person I saw was Michael Easton [Finn; ex-John, OLTL], so I automatically felt right at home. It was like, “Here we are, all together again!” And then M.K. [Weir, producer], who had been a producer at ONE LIFE TO LIVE, came down and Frank whisked me away and said, “Come on, we’re set for a promo!” And then I got back to the hotel and my phone was blowing up and I thought, “Uh-oh!” Everyone was going crazy on Twitter and texting me, so I texted Frank, like, “I said nothing. Did you say something?” And he went, “Yeah, I posted the video!” I was like, “Oh, thank God!”
Digest: What did the warm fan reaction to the news mean to you?
Smith: Oh, gosh, that made me happy. It really did. And I was so happy for them, that they were getting to see somebody they actually mourned. I had people reaching out, saying, “Is Bo around? Are you still with Bo?” That was so cute. I had to reach out to [Robert S. Woods] Woodsy and say, “Everyone’s happy to see me, but they all want to know if you’re going to be here!” He was like, “No, no, I’m out in the country. I’m good.”
Digest: Did you interact more with Roger and Michael once they were allowed to acknowledge that you were there?
Smith: Well, I can’t talk about who I worked with, but yeah, in the hallway, I had a really nice time catching up with Roger. I hadn’t seen him in a long time. It was fun to catch up with Michael, too. I didn’t know he had a second child; that’s how much time had passed since we really sat down and talked, so that was really nice. I love both of their wives, Cari [Stahler, Howarth’s wife] and Ginevra [Easton’s wife], just love, love, love them, so it was really fun to see that they still were happy and healthy and wise, and to have some time to catch up with them.
Digest: And, of course, you knew some of the GH cast, as well, even if you hadn’t worked with them before.
Smith: Oh, it was amazing, the number of people! I’ve worked with Michelle Stafford [Nina]; I produced her in [the 2013 TV movie] THE GROVE. Finola Hughes [Anna], I saw a lot in New York when she was on ALL MY CHILDREN [as Alex]. Same with Rebecca Budig [Hayden]; when she was on ALL MY CHILDREN [as Greenlee], she was always bopping up to the ONE LIFE TO LIVE studio and we would see each other at events. Nancy [Lee Grahn, Alexis], I’ve known for eons. I knew her while she was still on SANTA BARBARA [as Julia]. And Kimberly McCullough [Robin], who I hadn’t seen in eons, she saw me and was like [gasp], “Hillary!”
Digest: Who did you get to make the acquaintance of for the first time?
Smith: I’ve seen Genie [Francis, Laura] before, but I didn’t really know her very well, so it was nice to see her and chat with her. I got to meet Carolyn Hennesy [Diane], who I’ve always admired. I think she’s terrific! I had never met Dominic [Zamprogna], Dante. I ran into Maurice [Benard, Sonny] in the hallway. Everyone was like, “What are you doing here?” The character’s name had a code name in the scripts [Edna Beasley], so they didn’t know it was me. They were like, “Oh, you’re Edna!” That was fun. It was just fun to come into hair and makeup and go, “Ooh! So-and-so is here, and that’s so-and-so!”
Digest: Who from ONE LIFE are you in contact with, other than Bob Woods, of course?
Smith: Oh, Kassie DePaiva [ex-Blair], Catherine Hickland [ex-Lindsay], Florencia Lozano [ex-Téa], James DePaiva [ex-Max], Tuc Watkins [ex-David], Nathan Fillion [ex-Joey], Nathan Purdee [ex-Hank]…. It’s really quite amazing. Kassie DePaiva was recently ill and a lot of us reached out to each other just to kind of touch each other again and say, “I’m thinking of you,” because we’re family. And what was really amazing was going to GENERAL HOSPITAL and seeing that they’re a family there. I really did have a great time, getting to see my old castmates and meeting some new, wonderful people.