It's been 26 years since General Hospital character Stone Cates died of AIDS, and the character's former portrayer, Michael Sutton, marked the anniversary of the emotional, trailblazing storyline by sitting down with Maurice Benard (Sonny Corinthos) for a special episode of the latter's video series, State of Mind.
Sutton was just 23 when he started on GH, and he shares that taking on the heavy storyline that saw heterosexual couple Stone and Robin (Kimberly McCullough) deal with an HIV diagnosis and the stereotypes and prejudice that came along with it was quite a lot to handle at that young age.
"I worked on that storyline at 23, 24, and 25. You are not supposed to think about death, existence, or AIDS at that age," Sutton points out. "Even though I was a character, as an actor and a person in real life, I had to entertain that subject matter. It changed me forever. As an actor, you break down barriers that you wouldn't normally do in your own life."
Fortunately, Sutton had the privilege to work with GH heavyweights like Benard, McCullough, Antonio Sabato Jr. (ex-Jagger Cates), Vanessa Marcil (ex-Brenda Barrett), and Steve Burton (ex-Jason Morgan) -- and he says that the group effort led to magic.
"If you watched our scenes back then, if you were human, we were touching your soul," he shares. "Whatever God particle we have inside of us, we were tapping into it. If you were watching it, it was raw, it was genuine, it was real. I think that is what we all aspire to do."
The actor goes on to explain that GH's AIDS story was a special time, but it was also an exhausting time because it felt like he and McCullough had the weight of the world on their shoulders.
"They gave us a storyline that was bigger than us, it scared us, and we had to meet the level because the world was dying from this disease at that time with no cure," he says, adding that his GH journey was so powerful, he eventually decided to quit acting because no other role or storyline could top what he experienced as Stone. "I haven't had that [kind of experience] in any of the TV shows, films, or anything else I have done since then. Eventually, I stopped acting because I felt like I had done the role of a lifetime."
In addition to sharing details about Stone's HIV/AIDS storyline, Sutton and Benard reminisce about working together during a difficult time for Benard, who was experiencing mental health issues.
"To take you back in time, you gotta remember I am a rookie. I see this veteran come in. We become instant friends, pretty much right off the jump," Sutton recalls of meeting Benard. "We are hanging out in the dressing room together. You meet my family. I meet your family. You are getting me through at a time that I didn't really have my bearings. Here comes Maurice Benard and knocks out something like 40 pages of dialogue and you crushed it... I was like, 'Wow.' I was just mesmerized and impressed."
But things changed during the pair's second day of working together, when Benard's bipolar disorder reared its ugly head.
"I am like, 'This is going to be great. I get to do the same thing as yesterday and go to school [with] Maurice,' and you come in, and it is a different you," Sutton recalls. "You were nervous, you were willing to show me you were nervous, and in scenes one or two, you started to need a break and you were trying to shake something off. I could tell you were having a problem getting through that first scene. But then you did. You got through it, scene two, scene three. By maybe the fourth scene of the day, and you've got another eight scenes to go, you couldn't get through it anymore... It was a ghost of you. You weren't there. My brother wasn't there."
Fortunately, Sutton's background in sports gave him the instinct to instantly support his teammate as best he could. "I'm going to ask you if you remember this: me, who knew nothing, and you know I knew nothing about acting, I said to you in about that fourth scene... me, knowing nothing, 'Just follow my lead. I will get you through it. Let's just play off one another. You'll get through this day. And, dude, you'll be ripping it up just like yesterday.' And we stumbled through the day, but you did it. You did it. And every moment, I was like on the sideline, and I'm telling you, 'Bro, you've got this. You killed it.'"
When Benard returned to the set nearly two weeks later, he had a tear-filled meeting with producer Shelley Curtis, who told him they would take each scene page by page, word by word, and do whatever they could to make it work. After that meeting, Benard met with Sutton, who recalls that their ensuing conversation changed his life forever.
Says Sutton, "You came to me when you came back, and you came to my dressing room. You said to me this, basically, 'You're not very good right now as an actor, but what you did for me, and why you thought you could do that with me to get me through the scenes, and [what you] said for me to trust you, you got me through that. I am going to take you under my wing. I am going to teach you everything I know, and if you are receptive to it, you are going to be an amazing actor.'"
Check out Sutton's full State of Mind episode below and let us know what you think in the Comments section at the end of the article.
What did you think of Michael Sutton's State of Mind episode? What are your favorite memories of the actor's time as Stone Cates? We want to hear from you -- and there are many ways you can share your thoughts.