When producer Gloria Monty was casting the role of rock musician Frisco Jones on daytime TV’s General Hospital, she knew what she wanted: “A personable actor who could be engaging, brooding, with a good sense of comedy,” says Monty, 63. And, of course, a hunk who might be able to sing.
Of more than 50 would-be Friscos who auditioned (including actor James McNichol), Monty settled on a 25-year-old Missourian who was then tending tables in an L.A. restaurant. Jack Wagner seemed “very ambitious, very bright,” Monty says, and as a 5’11” blue-eyed blond, he filled a TV screen quite nicely. What’s more, Wagner had been playing guitar since he was 14 and could probably do a fair imitation of a rock singer.
Could he ever. By last week All I Need, the plaintive pop ballad Wagner introduced to GH audiences last July 4, had become a Top 20 single. Now signed to Qwest Records—headed by Quincy Jones—Wagner has returned to the studio to record a debut album as well. “He’s a quick study and very smart,” says Jones, who has become a friend. “His soul is beautiful. I have a sign at the studio that says, ‘Check your ego at the door.’ He works hard and has no attitude problem. I think he can go as far as he wants.”
So far the journey has included singing gigs on American Bandstand and The Merv Griffin Show—not quite enough to inspire delusions of rock grandeur. “I came to L.A. strictly to be an actor,” Wagner insists. “I got the part on General Hospital because of my acting. They didn’t even test my voice.” He seems surprisingly cautious about the promise of fame. “I’m happening right now, but one slip is all it takes. I haven’t celebrated at all.”
Growing up in Washington, Mo., where his father was a car salesman and his mother a homemaker, Wagner first considered a career in pro golf. After winning the Missouri junior college championship in 1980, he sought an athletic scholarship to the University of Arizona. Instead, the school’s drama department, after watching his audition for a role in Over Here, offered to pay $3,000 toward his tuition for the next two years.
After graduation in 1982, Wagner moved to L.A. in 1982, found work as a tour guide at Universal Studios and kept in acting practice by treating tourists to impressions of his favorite stars. His first legitimate audition later that year led to a role as Clint Masterson on the cable-TV soap A New Day in Eden, which was then filming next door to the General Hospital set. Eden folded, however (“The production was poor, the concept weak,” says Wagner), and the out-of-work actor began waiting on tables and tending bar. Finally, one year to the day after he lost his first TV job, Monty hired him for his second.
So far neither his year-long run on daytime TV nor his hit record has added much luster to his lifestyle. Wagner still drives the Audi sedan he “got a great deal on” two years ago, and he still shares a two-bedroom apartment with a musician pal. “I’d like to buy a house and get out on my own,” he says cautiously. “It’s a luxury I can now afford.”
Soon there may be more: His record single will be released next year. And while insisting that “General Hospital is my priority” and that “I’m very loyal to the show,” the actor is clearly leaving some room to operate. Like Rick Springfield, an earlier GH alumnus-turned-rocker, Wagner has put together a back-up band—just in case someone asks him to tour.