Back in 1993, Maurice Benard was not exactly looking for gainful employment on a soap. After leaving ALL MY CHILDREN, where he’d played Nico from 1987-90, and playing Desi Arnaz in 1991’s LUCY & DESI: BEFORE THE LAUGHTER, “I was out of work for about two years,” he notes. “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 [for bipolar disorder, with which he had been diagnosed at the age of 22] at that time. I was getting close to things; I got close to [the role that ultimately went to Antonio Banderas in] Philadelphia. But when GH called, I said to [wife] Paula, ‘I’m not gonna do another soap.’ Because to me, it would be like I failed. I didn’t accomplish what I wanted to accomplish.”
His missus quickly changed his mind. “She said, ‘We’re broke!’ So I took the meeting.” For two hours, Benard sat with then-Executive Producer Wendy Riche and then-Producer/Director Shelley Curtis. “They said, ‘We have two roles for you. One is Damian 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 Shelley 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 debuted on August 13, 1993, and it was clear from the writing in those early days that the show had no intention of trying to lure him into a longer stay. “Sonny was bad,” he recalls. “Fans despised my character. He did things to a 16-year-old” — Karen, who he plied with drugs and employed as a stripper — “that nobody on a soap opera could do now. And in the beginning, I played him bad. But,” reflecting Benard’s own inner turmoil at the time, “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 [ex-Karen] 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.”
It’s well-documented that a few weeks into his run, Benard’s mental health reached a breaking point and he quit GH. “If I had done Philadelphia, with all those big actors and everything and had a nervous breakdown there, that might have ended my career,” the actor says. “Things have changed with mental health, but at the time, it was 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 [who were in charge] saved my ass completely.”
With their nurturing and encouragement, Benard returned to work, and by the time his six-month contract expired, “I liked the character and the actors and Wendy, and I said, ‘This is a cool gig.’ ” He agreed to stick around, “but I knew that to survive on the show, I had to change the character. So I started bringing even more pain, so the audience felt for Sonny. It took a while, and then, when Sonny got with Brenda, that was it.”
Indeed, Benard’s mega-popular pairing with Vanessa Marcil (ex-Brenda) secured his status as a Port Charles heartthrob and one of the most popular actors in the genre, and Benard ate it up. “I’m not gonna lie to you,” he says. “When you have a big ego like I had early on, that’s what you strive for.”
Benard checked out of GH in 1997 and by the time he returned full time at the tail end of 1998, Marcil had left; enter Carly as Sonny’s next major love interest. “I couldn’t wait to work with Sarah [Brown, the original Carly], but I wasn’t thinking it was going to be like a Vanessa thing,” he shares. “I didn’t necessarily think it was going to work, I really didn’t. But I was pleasantly surprised.”
When Brown departed in 2001 and Carly was recast with Tamara Braun, the actor was confident that “Carson” would continue to thrive. “I’m in a different place now; I’m 60 years old and I’ve been there for 85 years,” he teases. “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.” Carly No. 3, Jennifer Bransford, was short-lived, and Laura Wright has held the role of Sonny’s on-again, off-again wife since 2005. Marvels Benard, “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, Carly and Sonny. It was a perfect storm and it all worked out and here we are almost 20 years later.”
But to hear Benard tell it, that he would still be here 20 years later was far from guaranteed. “I had a conversation with Tony Geary [ex-Luke] 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. I would leave for a year. You haven’t left!’ ” Benard credits Executive Producer Frank Valentini’s overhaul of the show’s production schedule with bringing him 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’m not working as much, there’s not as much dialogue. That really helped me.”
The actor himself has changed over the years — like Sonny, he is now not only a father but a grandfather, and when it comes to his work, “I’m more relaxed. I was about 70 percent in the moment in the past. Now that I’m older, I’m almost at 95 percent present.” Sonny has changed, as well, both from tough losses (e.g., the deaths of Stone, Morgan and Mike) and radical shifts in his personal life (e.g., his year in Nixon Falls as amnesiac “Mike”, which yielded his current romance with fiancée Nina).
While not every Sonny-centric plot or romantic pairing has been a hit, Benard’s popularity with the GH audience has never wavered. “I appreciate that,” he declares. “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.”
The actor gets emotional when asked what the Maurice Benard of 1993 would think at the notion that he’d be hitting a 30-year milestone as the dimpled don of Port Charles. “That depends,” he chuckles. 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 [gets choked up], I’m learning to appreciate the [work] family that I have. That’s a big, big deal for me. GH is not just a job. It’s like my second family.”
Just The Facts
Birthdate: March 1, 1963
Hometown: Martinez, CA
We Are Family: With Paula, his wife since August 11, 1990, Benard shares daughters Cailey, 28, Cassidy, 24, and Heather, who they adopted in 2008, and son Joshua, 18, and have three grandchildren.
STATE Secrets: Benard’s mental health-centered YouTube series, STATE OF MIND, has racked up over 9,000,000 views.
Gimme A Break: Benard spent his summer hiatus from GH “chilling out, relaxing and listening to a lot of Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra. It’s funny; the older I get, the more I understand them. I think I understood it the last time I listened to them but now, I’m really getting it.”
Trophy Case: He has three Soap Opera Digest Awards for Outstanding Lead Actor (1996, 2003, 2005) and one for Favorite Actor (2000), and three Daytime Emmys for Outstanding Lead Actor (2003, 2019 and 2021); he is nominated again in that category this year.
Puppy Love: The newest four-legged addition to the animal-filled Benard household, Vito, “is nine months old and loves to eat my shoes.”
Kris Cross: Benard has just started working with Kate Mansi, who recently assumed the role of Sonny’s daughter, Kristina, from Lexi Ainsworth. “I love Lexi like she was my own daughter, so of course it’s incredibly difficult [to see her leave]. I’d never worked with Kate, only heard that she was a really good actress. And then, the first day I worked with her, boy, she just really hit a home run, and I was so happy.”