From General Hospital to American History X – And Beyond

Ever heard of John Martinuzzi? Unless you’re a real soap opera fan from way back in the 1980s, you’ve probably not heard of him. Ever heard of John Morrissey? Unless you’re an aficionado of film and know who produced which topnotch film of this or that year, you’ve probably not heard of him, either.

In fact, as a consumer of TV and movie entertainment, you’re likely not any more familiar, by name, with Mr. Morrissey than you are with Mr. Martinuzzi. Yet if you’re a regular consumer of TV and movie entertainment, be assured, you are aware of the products put out under these names.

In 1982, John Martinuzzi originated the role of the deliciously-evil Stavros Cassadine on ABC’s GENERAL HOSPITAL, and went on in 1984 to play David Preston on CBS’ THE GUIDING LIGHT. John Morrissey is the established producer of recognized and celebrated films, namely the critically-acclaimed AMERICAN HISTORY X, among others, both for the big screen and television.

What makes this interesting is that Martinuzzi and Morrissey is the same man. Actor, producer, writer, photographer, clothing designer-these are his professions in just the first 50 or so years.

It’s in the transition from one name to the other, one form of visibility to another, that the meat of the story is revealed. For all practical purposes to anyone who may have followed his screen work, John Martinuzzi seemed to disappear from the face of the earth, and at that time, his just-growing “fan base”-as John Martinuzzi aka Stavros-was left wondering if he, like Stavros, had passed away . . . or at very least, dropped out of the industry to become, say, a car salesman.

What did happen?

John Martinuzzi, the man, is alive and well, living in Los Angeles, but the name is no more.

Using Martinuzzi as his last name, the actor came to public light in 1983 as Stavros Cassadine on GENERAL HOSPITAL, a part which he had no way of knowing would live on in soap history. And though Stavros reportedly died during Martinuzzi’s tenure, the character was eventually resurrected, with another actor in the role. This is when John Martinuzzi slowly began to morph into oblivion – or so it appeared to the general public who’d come to enjoy his compelling portrayal of such a complicated character. Though Martinuzzi took on another nationally-known role on THE GUIDING LIGHT a few years later, that character never grabbed viewers in the same way. Then-he was gone to daily visibility. No more John Martinuzzi.

It didn’t really happen that fast, though. Things were changing in John’s life. Lots of things. To start from the beginning-what originally brought John into the bright lights of stage, television, and film, and what came about to bring about his change in personas?

He was born in the 1950s. At a point where there was no male figure in his life, his mother worked as assistant to the famous Eartha Kitt, and she and John lived with her. He called Eartha the “head of the household,” and said she was “stubborn and aggressive in her way, but very smart.” It was a “unique” atmosphere, since the head of their home “was a black woman.” John became accustomed early on to “women and blacks in positions of power.”

He, his mother, and Eartha went from theater to theater, and, as he put it, acting “just seemed like . . . what grown ups did.” So when he grew up, John followed suit. He went to college, then to drama school in London. He did a considerable amount of regional theatre before going on to Broadway.

How did he make the transition to soap operas?

He auditioned. As John Martinuzzi, he auditioned six times for the role of Stavros Cassadine. Though he had been born John James Morrissey III, his parents divorced and his mother ultimately remarried. He was adopted by his stepfather and lived as John Martinuzzi well into adulthood-and notoriety as an American actor, a time which had started with these auditions.

John said, “By the time it got to the end” of the casting process for the part of Stavros, “I had come to be what they imagined, and they changed some dialogue for me and when I would improvise, they would add some of what I said.” Stavros was uniquely his, and even though he held that part for only a year or so, he put an irresistible stamp on the character . . . so much so that, over 25 years later, viewers still talk about “John Martinuzzi” and his portrayal of Stavros Cassadine. And the next thing they want to know is, “Whatever happened to him?”

After his stint on GENERAL HOSPITAL, and then THE GUIDING LIGHT, and other less-visible roles, John moved from in front of the cameras to behind them as a movie producer. During this time, he made the decision to return to his roots. Now the name change. It came about when he fell in love and asked his sweetheart to marry him.

“Will you take my name?” he asked her.

“Not the Italian one,” she replied, “but I’ll take your real name.” He acquiesced, and returned to his birth name. For about 14 years, John James Morrissey III was a married man with a family, working regularly as a movie producer. He helped raise his wife’s daughter from a previous marriage whom he calls “a spectacular girl,” with softness in his voice, and John Martinuzzi slipped into the past.

By changing his name, John didn’t realize he was effectively cutting away one portion of his public persona. It didn’t even cross his mind. Amazingly, he was totally unaware he even had a following. When the issue of the Stavros re-cast was brought up, John was surprised.

“I don’t think the role was recast. Relatives were chosen. I don’t think Stavros himself was recast.” He hesitated. “Maybe I don’t even know.”

He didn’t know. He was told Stavros was brought back in 2001 with Robert Kelker-Kelly in the part, and he asked pointedly, “Was Genie on the show?”

“Genie” referred to Genie Francis, the actress who originated the role of Laura Spencer, and went on to become half of Luke and Laura, one of the most famous soap couples of all times.

When informed that Genie was on the show at the time, John’s response was short. “Genie would’ve opposed me coming on to do it.”

This brings us to the real history between not only the characters-Laura and Stavros-but also between the actors-Genie and John.

“I have not followed GENERAL HOSPITAL,” John explained. “I did not follow GENERAL HOSPITAL when I was on it.”

After only a slight hesitation, it was evident he had made a decision, a decision to tell his story. “I fell in love with Genie Francis and we lived together for several years.” This explained the realism behind their electric onscreen chemistry. “We did some plays after our work [together] . . . had a good time. She was concerned about becoming a better actress . . . so we went to New York-she wanted to study with my acting teacher. We went to New York; I was cast in some plays, she was studying . . . .”

He stopped for a moment to collect his thoughts, as if trying to decide how best to relate the next part of their shared drama.

“I was an alcoholic, I am an alcoholic, and I didn’t really know it but she did. She had been exposed to alcoholism with her father, and she had had her own process with drugs and alcohol even though she was quite young. She understood a lot more about alcoholism and A.A. than I did, so I think that I was not a viable partner for her, really.”

Anyone who’s followed GENERAL HOSPITAL‘s history has heard the rumors that Genie and her leading man at that time became an offscreen item. What happened to that romance, however, has been nearly as much of a mystery as the whereabouts of that leading man since he left daytime TV. Here he was now, personally explaining all that had gone on behind the scenes.

“It was impossible to carry on and so after a few years, we broke up. She left, and it was very upsetting to me.” His voice tinged with regret. “. . . she became angry with me because I was upset with her.” They did things against each other, as so often happens when love gets hurt. John sounded surprised at the depth of his recollections all these years later. “I don’t even barely remember the things I did that upset her but, apparently,” he laughed uncomfortably, “she’s still upset, I discovered years later. She’s one of the few women I’ve had a serious relationship with that I didn’t remain very good friends with . . . and for whatever reason, I have not remained friends with Genie.”

So the stormy truth of the Laura and Stavros/Genie and John story is finally revealed. He lived with his regrets and went on after Genie, though still not toning down his lifestyle.

“I did two years on THE GUIDING LIGHT, as John Martinuzzi.” The name change hadn’t yet taken place-the disappearance was still a few years into the future. “That was interesting,” he continued, “but I think my alcoholism began to flare more during that time . . . soap opera acting just wasn’t what I was interested in. It was a little too limiting.”

John sighed heavily. It sounded as if he hadn’t visited this period in his life in quite some time. “I was very young and extremely frightened of taking a step away and trying to get somewhere more on my own, go in whatever direction I really wanted to go as an artist, on any level. . . . I did some plays while on the show. And right after my contract ended, I came to L. A. in 1987. I had acted on a bunch of episodic television but found I was at the peak of my alcoholism and still in denial, still not recognizing it, but it was interfering in my life.”

What happened? Love happened. “I met this woman, and I liked her a lot . . . and I met some other people who were film producers, and film production began to interest me. . . . Acting is ego-oriented. Even [for] actors who are not particularly egotistical.”

The surprise here was that John didn’t seem to be an egocentric man. When the world has but one or maybe two personas on which to base an impression, and when those personas are self-serving and not-so-nice, it’s an unfortunate mistake to expect the person behind the characterizations to be similar.

The man himself was quite the opposite. “It’s constantly, ’til you are a star, having to worry about how you look and having to run around chasing work. Self-focused. And the parts of oneself that aren’t necessarily the most interesting. So I was sick of it. I was attracted to producing films. I hadn’t particularly stopped acting, I hadn’t consciously stopped acting, but I got more and more involved in producing.”

When asked if he’d consider acting again, he replied, “I like acting. It’s really fun. It’s the best of lifestyles that . . .” he laughed, the sound happy, young, impish, ” that I’ve lived. You show up on the set, everybody treats you really nicely and you get a lot of privileges. Nice ego-boosting things happen, then you go out and play and . . .” again he laughed, “that’s all that’s expected out of you. It’s emotionally-challenging but I like that. But I’m not so eager to pursue that because I don’t want to worry about running around looking for work. It’s a pain in the ass.” More light-hearted laughter. “So,” in final answer to the original question, “if people ask me to act, I do.”

It was here in his story, at a time where he was in love and moving away from acting and into producing-a true life change-where he proposed, and his lady said, “Yes.” She wanted to become Mrs. Morrissey, though, not Mrs. Martinuzzi. John reverted to the name given him at birth, and this lifestyle worked well for a time, long enough for him to get used to being a husband and a father. While he was married, he produced the well-accepted AMERICAN HISTORY X with Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, and Stacy Keach.

“I’ve produced 14 or 15 movies and some television stuff, and I have an ongoing career as a producer and a lot of credibility and a good position in the industry, so I think I’m in good shape, and I can make good money doing it.”

Unfortunately, though his professional world was going well, his personal life went through another major change. By 2001, with a solid career as a film producer, he and his wife had split. John was again on his own . . . and this seemed to encourage a desire for something new in his professional life, as well.

“I was feeling I’d grown limited by what I was doing as a producer,” he explained. “Producing is so depependent on such a huge collection and variety of people it can be monumentally frustrating. I can certainly make a good living and get a lot of movies made, but I’m no longer interested in making movies that don’t compel me, like American History X did. I’ve made some movies just to make a living, and I don’t particularly want to do that.”

He needed to expand again. He had the means, and he ” . . . started writing more, I’m a photographer, and I shoot for a variety of publications. A few years ago I decided I was interested in women’s clothing so I started to design. My line is starting to take off. . . . I just made a major sale to Sears in Mexico. Sears in Mexico is partnered with Sachs, and they’ve bought my line, called John Morrissey, as well as a number of other boutiques in Mexico City. I’ve started to sell in Miami. I’m putting all my attention on this Mexican process because my clothes go on sale there in September.”

What led John to take his clothing venture south of the United States border?

“At the time I split with my wife, I decided to learn how to speak Spanish. I’ve had an increasing interest in Central and South America, and have travelled to Mexico, Spain, Venezuela, Argentina, and Uruguay.” Costa Rica, Guatemala, Colombia, and Chile are on his list of future travel spots.

John’s journey-emotional as well as literal-painted the picture of an entrepreneur, a man with varied but connected interests, and a determination to not limit himself to only one but, instead, excel at all of them.

When it was suggested that he was an entrepreneur, he thought for a moment before responding. “Producing is entrepreneurial. I think what I am is an artist, and I find different media or venues in which to express or practice or develop my art. For me, it all comes from the same place. . . . Designing clothes and writing and taking pictures and producing movies and acting, and all of it is sort of the same thing. I know it isn’t, it requires different skill sets, but the impulse comes from exactly the same place. I think of myself as an artist. Some of the stuff I do requires entrepreneurial skills, of which mine are very limited.” He laughed, as if he couldn’t quite see himself in that role.

Yet, in hearing his story, there seemed to be little about this man that could be described as “limited.” He gave off an air of one who was confident, yet not oversure. Capable but not arrogant. Someone who knew his way around romance but who truly prefers being in love with one special lady.

Which brought about a revealing comment from John. In talking again about his first real national role, that of Stavros on GENERAL HOSPITAL, he said, “It was quite interesting to me because it sort of changed my view of myself. I thought of myself as a character, kind of a weird-looking guy, and I got cast as a very sexy guy. It had a great impact on my self-image.”

Sometimes that’s what it takes. Perception coupled with acceptance and action. John went for the role, it was given to him, he learned to play it, and he excelled.

That could, in fact, be John Morrissey’s modus operandi these days. Not only has his name changed. In his own words, “On September 17, 1993, I stopped drinking and doing drugs and I’ve been clean and sober ever since. In 1996 I quit smoking.” Each time he’s gone around another curve in life, he has found a new role. Up for every new challenge, he’s figured out how to play each one. Seems that for every corner John will turn, he’ll continue to happily surprise himself.

But make no mistake. If you want to keep an eye on this artist, from here on out you need to be watching for John Morrissey, not John Martinuzzi!

John Martinuzzi may be gone but there’s no sorrow there. Morrissey is here to stay!