From General Hospital to teaching gerontology: Soap star finds meaning as professor

“People always ask me if it’s too late to go back to school and I always say no,” says George Shannon

Take one of George Shannon’s gerontology classes and he might look a bit familiar — like a leading man from a 1980s soap opera. Or maybe it’s the voice. You swear you heard it in a Cadillac commercial.

That’s because you did. Shannon, now 78, became a gerontologist at the age of 64, after a decades-long career as an actor, starring in shows like General Hospital and being the face of the Chevy Nova.

“The best teachers are born actors,” said Shannon, a USC instructional associate professor since 2006. “They love being in front of a group. They learn their material and they enjoy communicating.”

Drawn to gerontology

Shannon went back to school, with only a high school diploma, at age 55. He was drawn to gerontology after taking a class on women and aging.

“I was appalled,” he said, after learning about aging women in poverty, many reeling from the gender pay gap or losing the sole breadwinner in their household. “I have four daughters. I thought this is something I can learn more about and contribute to.”

He got his bachelor’s degree and then went to the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology for his master’s and PhD, completing them in nine years.

“People always ask me if it’s too late to go back to school and I always say no,” Shannon said, who was named Kevin Xu Chair in Gerontology last year.

Night-and-day difference

It was a night-and-day comparison to the last time he was in college, when he was in his 20s, married with four kids while juggling work and night classes at the University of Illinois.

“I was somewhat intimidated by the whole thing when I was young,” he said.

He dropped out to support the family, working as an elevator repairman in Chicago skyscrapers. On the way to a repair job, he got “discovered.”

“I was walking down Michigan Avenue with a toolbox in my hand and a woman asked if I ever thought of doing print work,” he said.

She was an agent. All of a sudden, he had headshots and auditions for modeling or acting parts.

“I was like Superman,” he said. “I would change into a suit [in my car], go into an agency and audition or actually do a job.” Then he’d run back to his car to change back into his work clothes.

New York times: furthest thing from teaching gerontology

But a couple of years in, he and his wife divorced. He decided to give acting a go full-time and move to New York. There he studied under Lee Strasberg, a teacher known for training the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Jane Fonda and Al Pacino.

“I probably did 1,200 commercials,” he said. “I was the Tiparillo man. I just did every car [ad] imaginable — Ford, Lincoln, Chevy, Mercedes-Benz. For 10 years, I pretty much always had a commercial on air.”

He did about 50 plays, from Hamlet to ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore. He lived in a Paris for a bit, starring in a surreal film called I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse — apparently a cult favorite in France.

After a few years, likely lured by the weather, he moved to L.A.

He went on to star on several soap operas, from General Hospital to The Young and the Restless and How to Survive a Marriage from the ’70s into the early ’90s. He did a lot of voice-over work for automakers like Cadillac and Isuzu.

And just like a Hollywood movie, he met his wife here, locking eyes while shopping at a Sherman Oaks supermarket.

Getting into his 50s, his career was pretty steady, but he saw others struggle.

I just knew I needed to do something more meaningful than act.

George Shannon

“I decided to go back to school — it wasn’t because I was cracking,” he said. “It hit me and I don’t know what it was. I just knew I needed to do something more meaningful than act.”

And he’s found that.

Next role: teaching gerontology

“I’ve taught just about every class that there is in the last 10 years,” he said, from sociology and aging to classes on social policy, economics and the moral dilemmas of caring for aging adults in society.

He’s also the chief investigator of Dor Vador, which shares the stories of Holocaust survivors with children. The project is an intergenerational exchange in which young people watch a film of survivor stories and turn it into art, which they then share with the older adults they had seen on screen. It’s funded by the Jewish Community Foundation.

And he’s the executive producer of Motionless, a documentary on paralysis featuring a voice-over from actress Helen Mirren. One in 50 in the U.S. deal with paralysis, he said.

Actor and gerontology professor

He had the chance to combine his two passions, recently consulting on a Norman Lear TV pilot set at a Palm Springs retirement community. Lear wanted to make sure writers were accurate in their portrayal of a woman in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

“I was sitting right next to Norman while they were filming,” he said. “It was wonderful being on set again.”

And as for acting, he’s not opposed to getting on stage again. When he’s not teaching, that is.

“I would do a play in a minute,” he said. “I just told my wife last night that I might grow a beard and play King Lear.”

Joanna Clay is a writer and multimedia producer for USC News. This column originally appeared in USC News on July 9, 2018.

Photo by Gus Ruelas.