Jack's back !

 By Mimi Torchin, Soap Opera Weekly, 1991

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Jack Wagner is in a talkative mood. Normally press-shy and intensely private, he is today loquacious and forthcoming, bristling with energy and the genuine charm that has made him one of daytime's hottest properties. Perhaps it is the excitement of a new role on a different soap that has prompted these soaring spirits. Wagner played the popular singing detective Frisco Jones on ABC's General Hospital from 1983 (with a few months off for good behavior in 1988-89) until just a few months ago. This July he made the surprising switch to NBC's Santa Barbara, a show with low ratings but a reputation for iconoclastic creativity.

No doubt Santa Barbara honchos are hoping Wagner's high-voltage presence as the cigar-chomping, Hemingway-esque newspaperman and adventurer, Warren Lockridge - a refreshing throwback to characters of the sophisticated films of the '30s and '40s - and his intensely loyal following will give them the boost in numbers the show so desperately needs. As for Wagner, his motivation for the change is equally straightforward.

"I've seen a lot of things printed about it, but here's what really happened," Wagner states for the record. "My contract (at General Hospital) was up at the end of May. It was a little frustrating for me because I really didn't have that much to do for quite some time, and I didn't know in what direction Gloria (Monty, General Hospital executive producer) was going with the character (Frisco) or his relationships. And he had kind of regressed in my mind, going back to a foot patrolman. It's very frustrating when your character begins to go backwards. I really didn't know what was happening and I wasn't in a position to start questioning Gloria's decisions."

While Monty concentrated on new characters and allowed Frisco to twist in the wind, the Peacock network made its move. "NBC approached me, and Jackie Smith (then head of NBC daytime) and I got together and started talking," Wagner continues. "And they were very positive over there. The character (Warren), the way I saw him in my mind - the whole idea of who this guy was going to be - was so exciting to me. And," he adds, his voice laced with dry humor, "they offered me a great deal. It was as simple as that. It was nothing about how I hated Gloria or Tony (Geary, Bill) or Tristan (Rogers, Robert). We all got along ne," he assures us. "It was just a matter of an opportunity for me to go over to another network, start fresh with a new character and a new show. And there were quite a few incentives that ABC never offered in terms of nighttime situations and movies of the week."

This last item, mentioned almost as an afterthought, seems to be the real crux of the matter. Wagner confirms this : "My deal at ABC was going to be pretty much the same kind of deal I had before. The money was still going to be very good, but there was nothing else to look forward to, and that's real important when you're on a daytime show like this, to be able to look forward to a prime-time pilot or movie somewhere down the line."

It would seem a good time for us to leave General Hospital in the past and move on to his new life on Santa Barbara. But there's one last question that still nags us. Wagner was brought to General Hospital by Monty and the two reportedly had a close working relationship. So how does he feel about the avalanche of criticism that threatens to bury his former mentor ? Is it justified ? He is thoughtful before replying. "As far as it being justified, who's to judge ? My opinion of the situation is that Gloria came back with so much hype, and brought Tony back with so much hype, that it caused things to go in the opposite direction, created a sort of backlash. That says one of two things to me. One, back when the show was in that big forward thrust and it became No. 1 and the Luke and Laura storyline was so incredibly popular... it says that it was a great idea, a great combination of story and actors, how brilliant, and why can't it happen again ? But it also says that maybe it was just timing and chemistry between Tony and Genie (Francis, who played Laura). Maybe the time has passed... we're talking 10 years later... and things have changed too much, and maybe Gloria needs to change with the times. Rather than listening to all the criticisms, I think it's up to Gloria to look at the show with an open mind and see what worked then isn't working now, and figure out how to move forward."

He sighs, clearly eager to be done with the topic, but offering a final opinion in the spirit of cooperation. "It's a tough situation. Who would ever have thought the show would drop so many ratings points ? You can't really blame one person, but it looks like everyone is attacking Gloria anyway. But you know," he says, and we know the end of this subject has arrived, "I'm really out of all that. When I left the show I washed my hands of it. It was a good time and I'm leaving a lot of friends, but it's over."

A gentlemanly assessment and now, on to the present. Warren Lockridge may not be a new character on Santa Barbara - he was previously essayed by John Allen Nelson (1984-1986) and Scott Jenkins (1986-1987) - but as portrayed by Wagner, Warren is a new man. The old Warren was bland and unmemorable, a boyish character who began life on the show as a lifeguard on the beach. This is light years from the mature rebrand Wagner and the writers have brought forth in a burst of joint creativity. It is the writers, of course, who come up with Warren's words and storyline, but it is Wagner who developed his look and reckless flamboyance. Warren definitely lights Wagner's creative res.

"I find him very challenging. The writing on this show is very sophisticated and this character is something brand new for me. I look at this opportunity... I like to be climbing uphill. That's the way I am in golf tournaments. If you've ever seen any history of the tournaments I've won, I've always come from behind. I like that; it makes you work harder. You can get a little lazy when you're sitting in first place, and then all of a sudden someone sneaks up and snatches that away from you and you find you aren't sharp enough to get it back. I'm a believer in that - not getting complacent - about everything in life. People have said about my coming on this show, "How can you ? (General Hospital) was so stable and they were going to pay you a lot of money, etc..., etc..." and I said, "I don't want to live life like that.""

Coming on a show in a blaze of press coverage and speculation - why he left General Hospital, what impact he might have on Santa Barbara - might have caused some trepidation and resentment on the part of his new co-stars. But Wagner's professionalism and enthusiasm seems to have dissipated any concerns they may have had.

Karen Moncrieff, who plays Warren's former - and probably future - love interest, Cassandra, didn't know quite what to expect from Wagner. "Our first scene together was kind of strange," she admits, "because honestly I'd heard a lot of things about him. But he was really marvelous. Also the scene was brilliantly written and it was a lot of fun to do." Wasn't this first scene a flashback that involved some passionate kissing ? Moncrieff laughs, "Oh, you want some juicy stuff..." No, just the facts, ma'am. She complies, "I think having to kiss Jack, who was really a stranger, made that first scene easier, it broke the ice. At that point, you can only laugh about it because it's obviously uncomfortable. So we had to, well, connect in a way that can normally take weeks to do."

What surprised Moncrieff most was Wagner's approach to the character of Warren. "When I initially read the scene I saw it differently, and what he brought to it was so fresh. He's constantly surprising me as an actor, and that's fun. It keeps me on my toes."

Does she think this is an approach that will remain "fun" ? Will she enjoy working with Wagner for the long term ? "I don't know," Moncrieff replies with surprising candor. "We're very different, but that can make for something very interesting. When you're too comfortable, that can come off as kind of "Ma and Pa," and I don't think that will ever happen with Jack. There's definitely a spark. Is it chemistry ? I don't know. But there's definitely something happening."

"Jack kicked ass from the top," says A Martinez (Cruz), Santa Barbara's much-loved leading man and the person most likely to have been entitled to feel a little wary of Wagner's invasion of his turf. But Martinez, a true gentleman who is secure in his talent and popularity, appreciates these same qualities in his new co-worker. "Once you have been in this game long enough, you start having a sense of your strengths and weaknesses and what you need to do is make the stuff work for you. To Jack's credit, and it's no surprise, he made sure the things in the scene (their first together) were working. He's doing a great job," Martinez says, "And he's already begun to establish a more clear-cut version of the relationship between Cruz and Warren. He's a pro."

Wagner is the first to admit Martinez could have felt threatened by his hiring. "Who wouldn't ?" he asks rhetorically. "He's been there so long; he's really cared, and he's built a good reputation. I really respected that. I wasn't coming on to say, "Hey, I'm here to take over your herd." It wasn't anything like that. Rather, it was like "I'm here to be a part of the team, to help the show and the ratings if I can. So let's go." That's the way I approached it and I think he felt that. We get along really well."

Wagner recounts that first meeting with Martinez and what he believes he meant about "kicking ass." "I had an incredible work load in the beginning. I had 14 or 15 scenes a day, because I shot five shows in my first two days." (Wagner had prior commitments that prevented him from starting sooner, and the character had already been written into shows a week before his arrival.) "I really knew what I was coming on to do, and I was prepared. It wasn't like somebody new on a show who didn't know what they were doing. I came on laughing, joking and prepared. And when I worked with A, we got along very well. We were really able to give each other space and respect each other, and the scenes were funny."

Wagner tells us with some relish how he stuck a piece of sandpaper behind his ear for the scene in the hospital, which was his first scene with A Martinez. "When Cruz asked me why I'm there at the hospital, I had a cigarette in my mouth and I got a match out and said, "I'm just a good newspaperman..." and I struck the match behind my ear and lit the cigarette with it and finished "...Looking for a good story, dude." I didn't tell the other actors, but I told the director so he could get a reaction shot. I've done a lot of shtick in my life... On General Hospital I'd add comedy anywhere I could. When we finished the scene, A said something like "Jesus, I haven't done comedy for five years." I think he enjoyed it. For me, in both my personal life and my work, I have to keep things fresh. I don't want to just walk through things."

Wagner does indeed go at everything full tilt, including fatherhood. Forget those rumors that Wagner and former General Hospital leading lady, Kristina Malandro - longtime girlfriend and the mother of his 11-month-old son, Peter John - are living separately. The couple are together and happy, and baby Pete has brought new meaning and direction to his dad's life. "Financially, I look at everything I do with him in mind. I think about his future, his schooling. It's funny," he muses, "when you become a parent you suddenly hear yourself saying all the things your parents said. I lost my father last year and I've really found that I think about life a little bit more, you understand it more, how this cycle happens. Then when your parents get older you become a parent to them..."

When asked what he considers his greatest achievement, he answers without hesitation, "Peter John." His greatest regret ? A lucky man, Wagner claims to have few regrets except perhaps not having had his son earlier in life. He believes confidence is his greatest asset and as for his worst trait, he laughs and says, "I might talk a little too much at the wrong times." Wagner says his father is always in his mind when he achieves something.

Wagner is definitely achieving something on Santa Barbara. The ratings seem to be inching upward, and people are talking about the show in positive terms again. And Wagner, who thrives on change and challenge and surprises, has found an unsuspected bonus in playing Warren. "This is a character," Wagner says, "that's shown me, "My God, I can act." Because sometimes when you play one of those "heroes," you play elements of yourself and scenes don't really have any substance to them. You have nothing to really search for. This character gives me something to work at. I can think as a character, be an actor working on a character, as opposed to just learning the lines and thinking of bits to do. I feel very much alive inside this character."