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Francis was born in Englewood, New Jersey. Her father, Ivor Francis, a Canadian actor of English descent, died in 1986 from the effects of multiple strokes. He played a brief role on General Hospital as an adoption counselor when his daughter was also on the show. Her mother, Rosemary Daley, is a former actress/model of Lithuanian descent. She has an older brother, Ivor Jr.; a younger brother, Kenneth; and an older half-sister, Shelley, from her father's first marriage.
Francis' best-known role, that of Laura Baldwin on General Hospital, would bring her instant stardom in the late 1970s. The television supercouple Luke and Laura wed on November 17, 1981, with 30 million viewers tuning in to make the episode the highest-rated hour in soap opera history. At the peak of her success, Francis left the show in 1982 to try her hand at prime-time television. Soon afterward, she landed a starring role in her own series, Bare Essence, which was unsuccessful. She returned to General Hospital in 1983 for a limited run, to coincide with the departure of Luke when Anthony Geary decided to leave the series.
Through the years, Francis has appeared on numerous other daytime soaps. She starred on Days of our Lives as Diana Colville from 1987 to 1989 and on All My Children as con artist and incest victim Ceara Connor Hunter from 1990 to 1992. She reprised her role as Ceara on Loving in November 1991. She then returned to General Hospital in 1993. In 1994, when Francis became pregnant with her first child, the pregnancy was written into the show and she took six weeks off for maternity leave. However, in early 1997, when she was pregnant again, she took a much longer absence from the show, staying away for nearly a year and a half. Francis abruptly left General Hospital in 2002 due to contractual issues.
In June 2006, Francis began negotiating with the casting directors on the show to return to the role of Laura Spencer for a limited run through November. She returned with spectacular fanfare to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Luke and Laura's wedding. Though she reprised the role for only one month, Francis' stint garnered her a Daytime Emmy Nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series, which she won in June 2007. Francis later returned to General Hospital again in August 2008 to reprise her role, appearing until November 12.
In December 2007, Francis had a starring role in the Hallmark Channel movie The Note, which earned her critical acclaim.
On January 31, 2009, Francis reprised her role of Peyton MacGruder in the Hallmark Channel movie Taking a Chance on Love. (The Note II).
In March 2011, it was announced that Francis would join The Young and the Restless as Genevieve Atkinson, the long-absent birth mother of Cane Ashby. With her appearance, she was reunited with former General Hospital co-star Tristan Rogers, who portrayed Colin Atkinson, Cane's estranged biological father. She received her second Daytime Emmy nomination in the category of Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for her role as Genevieve in May 2012.
On September 13, 2012, it was announced that Francis had been let go from her role on The Young and the Restless due to budget cuts.
On January 8, 2013, General Hospital executive producer Frank Valentini and Entertainment Weekly confirmed that Francis would return to General Hospital, first airing on February 11.
After a long-term relationship with General Hospital co-star (and on-screen husband) Kin Shriner and Falcon Crest star William R. Moses, Francis met actor/director Jonathan Frakes while filming the television series Bare Essence. After meeting again during the filming of the miniseries North and South, Francis and Frakes started dating in 1985. They became engaged in 1986 and married on May 28, 1988. The couple has two children, Jameson Ivor Frakes, born in 1994; and Elizabeth Francis Frakes, born in 1997. They moved from Belfast, Maine to Beverly Hills, California in 2008 and later moved to Calabasas, California.
Francis owned a store called The Cherished Home. It is located at 31 Searsport Avenue, Belfast, Maine 04915, and they also sell items online. The store sells cottage furnishings and home accessories. Francis sold the store in the fall of 2012, due to her workload on The Young and the Restless.
In May 2007, Francis began appearing in magazine advertisements as a spokesperson for the Medifast Diet, claiming she lost 30 pounds as of December 2007 using the diet.
In November 2009, Francis, along with her brothers, Ivor Jr. and Kenneth, released It's Christmas Time Again. They decided to donate a part of all record sales to the Children's Mission in Cuernavaca. Francis decided to donate all of her proceeds/sales to this mission. This endeavor was a project involving various members of her family.