His longtime National Geographic gig has carried Joel Sartore and his cameras to all seven continents and nearly 60 countries.
He’s been charged by elephants, bears and bison, nearly lost part of his leg to a flesh-eating parasite and had a brush with a deadly bat.
But until last month, the Lincoln photographer had never visited the fictional town of Port Charles, New York — home to ABC’s “General Hospital.”
And he’d never had to deliver the scripted lines of a soap opera.
“I had them memorized, and then the lights came up and I froze up. I’ll tell you, it wasn’t pretty. I’m going to get the Emmy for the most wooden performance.”
Sartore will appear as himself on Tuesday’s episode — a role he landed because the show’s executive producer, Frank Valentini, is a fan of Sartore’s Photo Ark project.
For more than 15 years, Sartore has traveled the world, attempting to photograph the estimated 20,000 species in captivity, to showcase their beauty, value and vulnerability.
Over the years, Valentini had ordered a half-dozen signed prints from Sartore, though the photographer didn’t know what his customer did for a living.
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Then the producer approached National Geographic with a proposal, Sartore said: What if the soap’s fictional Jerome Gallery hosted an exhibition of real Photo Ark prints?
“His bottom line is like mine,” Sartore said. “We both care about wildlife. He wanted to do what he could to give the Photo Ark lift.”
Sartore helped select the handful of prints that will appear on the gallery’s walls, including the first public display of the project’s 12,000th species.
But the executive producer had more to his plan: What if Sartore appeared on screen as the guest of honor?
“I said, ‘I’m not an actor.’ He said, ‘Oh, I know.’”
Kathy Sartore laughed when she heard about her husband’s new role.
“It was such a funny idea he would be on a soap opera.”
The couple landed in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago, and were impressed by the soap’s warehouse-sized set — and its production prowess.
“I was amazed by how hard those people work,” Joel Sartore said. The day they were there, the cast and crew tore through 125 pages of script. A big-budget, prime-time TV show averages six or seven pages a day, he said.
Kathy Sartore was taken by the show’s process and its pace. “They’ve just got it down so well. Every time they’d cut a scene, the hair and makeup people would run and make sure everyone was looking spiffy.”
Joel Sartore saw his own signed Photo Ark prints decorating the executive producer’s office wall; Kathy Sartore saw familiar faces — she started watching “General Hospital” during its Luke-and-Laura era, and still knows most of its characters.
(Luke’s long gone, but Kathy Sartore did take a picture of Laura’s dressing room.)
Then it was time for their shot. Kathy Sartore was cast as an extra, though she’s still not clear what her role was. “I’m not sure if I was supposed to be Joel’s wife. I was not really shot with him at all. I think I was an admirer at the gallery.”
But she did get to stand next to Ned Quartermaine, one of the storyline’s main characters.
And her husband’s performance wasn’t as bad as he described it, she said.
“Joel does not memorize; he’s a great off-the-cuff speaker. And so it was a challenge for him to say the exact words that were in his script. But he got through it.”
Five takes later, when he was finished, the cast was gracious, Joel Sartore said.
“They were very kind to me when I was flubbing the last two sentences. They applauded me when I got done, but I know I’m not an actor.”
Kathy Sartore plans to watch their performance Tuesday, but her husband will miss it — the Photo Ark’s remaining 8,000 species are calling, and he’ll be headed to Costa Rica.
“It’s too bad,” she said. “We would have had a good laugh together.”
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On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter