Best known as smoldering gangster Sonny Corinthos on ABC's longtime soap "General Hospital" (1963- ), Maurice Benard has arguably been the hottest actor in daytime for over a decade. His very human portrayal of an often conflicted but still violent "good fella" was years ahead of Tony Soprano, bringing Benard a devoted fan base, an Emmy award and an opportunity through his TV character, to shed light on a still-whispered-about disease. Diagnosed with manic depression from a young age, Benard became notable outside soap circles for his work promoting mental health awareness for a disease that, though it nearly destroyed him, helped propel him to the heights of daytime stardom.
Born Mauricio Jose Morales on March 1, 1963 to parents Humberto, a Nicaraguan-born bakery superintendent, and Martha, a bank employee from El Salvador, the younger of two boys grew up in Martinez, CA - a town 40 miles from San Francisco. Following a failed attempt at modeling, Bernard - who took his surname from a favorite aunt - grew interested in acting, appearing in local plays and working with a voice coach. After landing a national Ford commercial, the aspiring actor flew to NYC to audition for a part on the hit ABC soap, "All My Children (1970-2013).
Although Benard did not land the role he had tried out for, producers were so impressed with the actor's handsome Latin looks and intense demeanor, that they created a new character just for him - that of rogue-turned-good-guy, Niko Kelly. From 1987-89, Benard got his first taste of swooning female fans, as viewers tuned in to watch Kelly bed several on-screen lovelies, including co-star Lauren Holly. Despite a solid following, Benard left the show after two years and returned to California.
His most notable pre-"GH" role - and most infamous - was that of Desi Arnaz in the universally panned 1991 CBS biopic "Lucy and Desi: Behind the Laughter." The TV film, shot in only 18 days, was Benard's hardest role to date, in that he had to learn to sing, play the bongo and imitate Arnaz in only two weeks' time. Cast opposite Frances Fisher as Lucy, Benard made an admirable attempt to portray the famous Cuban bandleader, but the movie did little more than tick off family, friends and co-workers of the beloved real-life couple.
His next role - one that would catapult him to an even greater level of fame than Niko - came in the form of romantic, intense, passionate mobster Michael "Sonny" Corinthos, Jr. on arguably the most popular soap opera of all time, "General Hospital. In 1993, Benard started a limited six-month run as just another Port Charles "bad guy." But like his previous daytime gig, producers took notice of the depth and pain that Benard expressed with every look and gesture, as well as viewer reaction. When fan letters started pouring in, Sonny's storylines expanded and he was given a love interest every bit as desirable as he was.
Vanessa Marcil's coupling with Benard, gave "GH" its first legitimate heir to the "Luke and Laura" throne of soap coupledom. Marcil's Brenda Barrett, a spoiled, troubled beauty drawn to danger and dangerous men, ignited explosive sparks with reputed gangster Corinthos, the likes of which had not been seen on daytime television in some time - if ever. The "Sonny and Brenda" pairing, along with the return of Luke and Laura after a decade-long absence, ushered in the soap's second golden age of being thee daytime appointment television.
After much tug-of-war, including Brenda's betrayal of Sonny by wearing a wire, Sonny's rebound marriage to a fellow mobster's daughter and her subsequent murder-by-car bomb, and the introduction of third wheel Jasper Jax (Ingo Rademacher) to ignite love triangle sparks, Sonny and Brenda were finally set to wed in the summer of 1997. Unfortunately for long-time fans, Benard wanted to expand his acting repertoire to include prime-time TV and film roles and left the show at the same time Sonny left a devastated Brenda waiting at the altar.
Benard's first post-"GH" role was in the Eric Roberts film "Extreme Duress" (aka: "Restraining Order") (1999). Only 10 months after leaving, he returned to "GH," initially for a limited 12 episode run to give Marcil's character, Brenda, the closure she needed in order to leave the soap as well. After knocking on a lot of doors, Benard had learned being the hottest actor in daytime did not necessarily guarantee success in other mediums. When he learned his wife was pregnant with their second child, his return to Port Charles became a permanent one. Sonny fans were ecstatic and the show's producers beyond relieved that their biggest daytime draw had tested the waters out there and decided to come home to stay.
When Benard returned to the "GH" fold, he decided to use his pull with the show's producers to incorporate into his storyline, a subject he felt very strongly about because he himself suffered from it - that of manic depression or bipolar disorder. Since age 22 when the young actor had experienced the first of several manic breakdowns, Benard had dealt with the crippling mental disorder for years by taking lithium to even himself out. He shed light on this sometimes taboo subject, by insisting writers make Sonny Corinthos a manic depressive. The storyline helped land Benard a long overdue Daytime Emmy for Best Lead Actor in a Daytime Drama in 2003.
Just as important to the actor was discussing his mental disorder on daytime talk shows like "The View" (ABC, 1997- ) and "The Oprah Winfrey Show" (1986-2011). Due to his eloquence and passion, not to mention personal experience and high profile, Benard became the spokesperson for the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance and also campaigned for bipolar awareness with the National Mental Health Association.
By Jenna Girard