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Gloria Monty; producer guided 'GH' to pinnacle of soaps

LOS ANGELES -- Gloria Monty, a producer whose reinvention of the ABC daytime drama ''General Hospital" in the late 1970s turned it into a pop phenomenon that helped modernize television soap operas, has died. She was 84.

Ms. Monty, who was the model for the motherly soap opera producer in the 1982 Dustin Hoffman film ''Tootsie," died of cancer Thursday at her home in Rancho Mirage.

When she took the reins of ''General Hospital" in 1978, the show hovered on the brink of cancellation; Ms. Monty was given 13 weeks to save it.

With more women joining the workforce, the traditional audience for soap operas was eroding, and Ms. Monty needed to hook the teenage and college crowd.

She broke new ground in storytelling by introducing action-adventure and science fiction to the tried-and-true daytime staples of romance and infidelity. She cast younger actors, quickened the pacing, upped the glamour, and brought in a Broadway designer to modernize the set.

One of her boldest moves was a shocking and oddly disconcerting story line: After the troubled Luke Spencer raped Laura Webber, the sweetheart of the show, the pair began a romance. Outraged rape victims and counselors accused Ms. Monty of glorifying violence against women.

Ms. Monty recast the controversial plot turn in a 1987 interview with Us Weekly.

''Some people call it a rape. We call it a seduction," she said.

When Luke and Laura, portrayed by Anthony Geary and Genie Francis, got married, it was considered the television event of 1981. Elizabeth Taylor, a fan, was cast as a wedding guest. Newsweek put the bride and groom on the cover along with the headline ''TV's Hottest Show." An estimated 30 million viewers tuned in, a record for a daytime drama. ''Gloria gave us the kind of freedom that no longer exists in the genre," Geary recalled. ''It was a time when decisions were not made by committee."

With Ms. Monty at the helm, the show won two Emmy Awards as outstanding daytime drama series. By the 1979-80 season, ''General Hospital" had moved to the top of the ratings and stayed at No. 1 for five years.

''During Gloria's early reign, I had the great good fortune to watch her genius at work. She was tough and fearless and brilliant," Jill Farren Phelps, the show's executive producer, said.

At the height of ''General Hospital" mania, the show earned upward of $50 million a year -- about one-fourth of ABC-TV's annual profits. Ms. Monty, who did not publicly disclose her salary, reportedly made more than $2 million a year.

Saying ''nine years was more than enough," she took a respite from the show in 1987 to develop prime-time series and films for television. One short-lived 1983 series, ''The Hamptons," featured characters who were all rich and miserable.

Ms. Monty returned to ''General Hospital" in 1990 to try to restore the slumping soap to its No. 1 spot, which had been assumed by CBS's ''The Young and the Restless."

The 5-foot, 2-inch producer was known for being authoritative, but the second time around her ideas to revive ''General Hospital" seemed out of step.

She phased out longtime characters, such as the moneyed Quartermaine family, and introduced new working-class characters to give the show an ''Upstairs, Downstairs" flavor.

''GH," as aficionados call it, had become ''one long non-sequitur," according to the Chicago Tribune in 1993. When Ms. Monty left the series in 1992, ABC cited ''personal reasons."

She was born Gloria Montemuro on Aug. 12, 1921, in New Jersey to Joseph, a builder, and his wife, Concetta. Soon after earning her master's in drama from Columbia University, Ms. Monty married Robert O'Byrne, a theater producer and writer.

At improvisational workshops in New York, she worked with Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, and Bea Arthur.

In 1954, CBS hired her to direct the pilot for the daytime drama ''Secret Storm," which she produced and directed for 14 years.

When Ms. Monty hired a woman as her assistant director on ''Secret Storm," she was told it wouldn't work. She was asked: How were those wearing earphones supposed to distinguish between two female voices?

Ms. Monty agreed, until she stopped to think and said, ''Nobody has any trouble telling the difference between two male voices."

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