JUST THE FACTS:
Birthdate: March 2, 1963
Hails From: Martinez, CA
First Career: Modeling. "I hated every minute of it."
Best Friend: Danny Quinn, Anthony's son.
Jail Bait: When they met, Benard was 22. Wife Paula was 16.
Best GH Pal: Ron Hale
Mind Over Matter by Carolyn Hinsley
"I thought last year was good," allows GENERAL HOSPITAL's Maurice Benard. "But I always felt like I was supporting the AIDS story. This year, it's my own stuff to tackle. They're taking it deeper. For an actor, the deeper you can go, the better it is."
Not always. Yes, Benard's stunning performance as tormented Sonny Corinthos earned him a 1996 Soap Opera Digest Award and a Lead Actor Emmy nomination (he lost to ANOTHER WORLD's Charles Keating, who plays Carl). But nothing Benard has achieved on-screen could surpass what he has overcome in his personal life.
"I always say, if I ever win an Emmy award, I will thank my nervous breakdown." Is he kidding? "I'm manic depressive, so I'm chemically imbalanced," he explains dourly. "I'm a very nervous person." He's not kidding. And actually, he has had three breakdowns. "My first one was when I was 22," he begins. "Right when I started acting. I lost my mind. The cops came to my house, took me to the hospital. They asked my mom, 'Is he a drug addict?' No. 'Is he an alcoholic?' No. 'Then he has a virus in his brain.' Oh, okay. They gave me a brain scan and figured out that I had had a nervous breakdown. They took me to an institution where there were people walking around with schizophrenia. Horrible."
Benard affects an odd detachment as he tells this story, almost as if the story isn't about him. But he's rubbing his wrists as he talks, so the listener knows something bad is coming. "I was in the hospital about three-and-a-half weeks,"he continues. "There were times when they'd strap me to a bed. This I never told anyone. When I act now--when I cry, when I saw Lily come back as a ghost--I am back in that hospital. What happened was, I leaned back and a [watch] cut into my wrist. It reminded me of being strapped. So, I used it. I got scared. At one point, I told Ron [Hale, Mike], 'I'm losing it.' Ron was cool. He said, 'Don't think about that, think about other stuff.' I was back in the hospital for about a minute. Thats scary.'
If there is a master plan for the way our lives play out, then Benards' horror can only be explained as a necessary ordeal to bring him to the place he is today. "Yes," he nods. "I truly believe that if I hadn't gone through what I've been through, there's no way I could do what I do now. I think I could act all right, but to go that deep, bizarre plae, to play somebody losing his mind as Sonny is, no. A friend of mine says, 'You don't have to kill somebody to be a killer.' But I think it's more rich than that. That scene where I broke the piano [after Lily's death]; I've done that when my mind is screwed up. My breakdowns have been the greatest thing for my acting."
He continues. "The first breakdown was major. Slept with people who were crazy. They let me out for my first walk and I escaped without tennis shoes. The cops were after me. I weighed about 129 lbs--I weigh 169 now. I looked bad. Then, a year later, I had another breakdown that was a religious experience. I saw God in my room. I didn't want to tell anybody, because I was scared out of my mind. I needed to see a priest. Paula says, 'Honey, you're losing it.' Yeah, but something was pulling me there, It was life and death." Benard found a church, but was turned away by a custodian. "I said,'Look, give [the priest] this, please.' I gave him my cross, The door opens. I said, 'Hi, Father.' He has my cross. He said, 'Come to my office. What seems to be the problem?' I told the story. He said, 'Don't be scared.' I said, 'Has anybody else ever told you this?' He said, 'Yeah, many times.' He gave me back my cross. I walked out and I felt good. Paula was with me during my second one."
There is probably nothing that could happen to the union of Paula and Maurice Benard that could be worse than what they have already weathered. "My first girlfriend, for my first breakdown, freaked out," he states matter-of-factly. "Paula's amazing." With her love (and regular medication) Benard bounced back. He played the role of Nico Kelly on ALL MY CHILDREN from 1987 to 1990, wed Paula, and then moved to California, where he studied acting and auditioned for jobs he didn't get (notably the Antonio Banderas role in Philadelphia, which went down to the wire). And things got bad again.
"I had been out of work as an actor for two years," he relates. "I'd been studying my ass off,auditioned, been close to something and then heard back, 'He's too intense.' So I stopped taking my lithium, which was the biggest mistake I made." It was around this time that GH called, so Benard met with Executive Producer Wendy Riche, Supervising Producer Shelley Curtis and Casting Director Mark Teschner. "Wendy and Shelley were absolutely incredible. Mark was very cool. I hit it off with them. They offered me Damian or Sonny. [Sonny] was a shorter-term role, so I took Sonny. I had been taught to do bios to get into the character, so I did. I got into Sonny. All that strict s--t, the dialogue, I couldn't shake him. I bought a poster of Al Pacino in The Godfather III. I had it [on my dressing room wall], but it got to the point where it would freak me out. So I had to take it down. I had a breakdown. The third one."
Unfortunately, Benard had stopped taking his lithium under the mistaken impression that it would help his acting. Two weeks into his much-needed new job at GENERAL HOSPITAL, Benard quit. "I said, 'I'm whacked out, I'm not going back to GH.' My mind was gone." He stayed in his house, telling Paula that he wanted to quit acting and become a preacher. "Finally, Shelley got me on the phone and said, 'Listen, we'll hold your hand. You've got to get out of bed, and you've got to come to work.' Paula came with me and stayed in the car. I can't remember when I was ever that scared. I got of the car like this [shakes]. I just sat with Shelley and she hugged me."
Benard realized that going off lithium was not making him a better actor; it was keeping him from acting at all. He went back on the drug and returned to work. "Wendy and Shelley, I owe them a lot," he praises. "They saved my ass. They could have fired me. You don't have to put up with somebody saying, 'I'm not coming to work and I'm not giving you a reason.' When you go through a breakdown, it's tragic. You're weak, you're fragile, you're vulnerable. You can't act."
Fast-forward three years, and Benard is fine. He has a collection of award nominations, a beautiful 2-year old daughter, Cailey, and the unwavering support of a woman who has been to hell and back with this man. "Paula and I have been through it all," he says softly. "She is truly amazing. I need to be taken care of. I don't know where I'd be if I were by myself. I've got an obsessive personality, so I can party and party. [Without her], I'd be this actor who just thinks about acting and partying. With Paula, it's great. And of course, Cailey. Got my kid, my snakes, a nice house, two dogs. It's all balance."
As for his work, Maurice Benard is one of the rare daytime actors who is completely satisfied with what he has achieved with Sonny Corinthos. "I'm cool," he smiles. "I'm happy as could be."