"I think that a really good daytime serial soap reflects what's happening. That's certainly what we're trying to do when we want people to examine their prejudices and so on, but I also that think we do more than that -- we reflect changes, too. When mothers marched for peace in 1970 in 'All My Children,' we were copying the marches that there had already been. It works both ways."
About This Interview
In her two-and-a-half-hour Archive interview, Agnes Nixon discusses her love of reading and writing. She recalls attending Northwestern University and changing her focus from acting to writing. She talks of getting hired by legendary Irna Phillips to write for the soap opera Woman in White shortly after graduating college. She tells of moving to New York and writing for anthology dramas Robert Montgomery Presents and Hallmark Hall of Fame and writing for the early soap Search for Tomorrow. Nixon then details working for Irna Phillips on Guiding Light and co-creating As the World Turns with Phillips and Ted Corday. She then talks of creating and writing the successful soap operas All My Children, One Life to Live and Loving. She touches on casting for the programs (including casting Susan Lucci as "Erica Kane"), hiring writers and crafting popular storylines. Connie Passalaqua conducted the interview on October 21, 1997 in New York, NY.
Often termed the "queen" of contemporary soap opera, Agnes Nixon is best known, and most honored, for introducing social issues into the soaps. Like William Bell, creator of The Young and The Restless and The Bold and The Beautiful, Nixon apprenticed in radio with Irna Phillips, soap opera's creator, writing dialogue for Woman in White. In the early 1960s, in her first head writing job, with The Guiding Light, she had the heroine, Bert Bauer (Charita Bauer), develop uterine cancer. Typical of this storyteller, she was also personally motivated: a friend had died of cancer and Nixon hoped to teach women to have Pap smears.
The real beginning for the presentation of issues in television soap opera, however, was the first show Agnes Nixon created, One Life to Live (1968), written for ABC, which was then attempting to get into the soap game. In 1968 social structures and attitudes were changing, and One Life was rich in issue stories and characters: leads who were Jewish, up-from-poverty Irish-American, Polish, and the first African-American leads, Carla Gray (Ellen Holly), doctor-to-be, and Ed Hall (Al Freeman, Jr.). Gray's story, for example, had her develop from a character who was passing as white to one who embodied black pride, with white and black loves along the way, to antagonize racists. Ironically, when Holly and Freeman brought Carla and Ed back to One Life in the mid-1980s, they seemed out of place in by-then WASP-ish Llanview, Pennsylvania. "Color" in this era was created not by race, but by style, in the persons of the nouveau riche, Dallas-style oil family, the Buchanans. By the Democratic mid-1990s, however, interracial and Hispanic families had become central characters.
Agnes Nixon created One Life to Live for ABC in order to obtain the opportunity to write her "dream" story, All My Children (1970). AMC was more personal than OLTL, but social issues were still tackled: child abuse (again tied to a real organization in Philadelphia, and again drawing a strong and practical response); the Vietnam War; and the first legal abortion, Erica Kane's, in May 1971. Assuming the audience would be shocked, AMC's writers gave Erica a "bad" motive (she wanted a modeling job), and, following the abortion, septicemia (planned as educational as well as "poetic justice"). But Susan Lucci's fan mail cheered Erica on, and urged her to take the modeling job in spite of the objections of her then-husband.
Other issues pioneered by Nixon include political nonconformity, very rare in prime-time television, rarer still in daytime drama. When All My Children debuted in 1970, it featured Amy Tyler (Rosemary Prinz) as a peace activist. Next Nixon had the young hero, Phillip Brent, drafted against his will and later missing in action. Political pages in U.S. newspapers took note of a speech against the war by Ruth Martin (Mary Fickett), who had raised Phillip as her son: even the mothers on those escapist soap operas were against the war, the newspapers said. Fickett won the first Emmy given to a daytime performer, for her work during the 1972-73 season. In 1987, Agnes Nixon remembered simply, "I didn't feel that took so much courage. It was like a mother speaking. Like Friendly Fire." But Friendly Fire was not published until 1976. In 1974, Nixon turned to humanizing the Vietnamese, showing Phillip, in one of the few war scenes on TV soap opera, being rescued by a young Vietnamese (played by a man who had been adopted one of Nixon's friends.
Nixon's stories characteristically show both sides of the issues on which she focuses: of the teenage prostitute, the drug addict, even the wife beater. When she feels there should be no sympathy for the other side, she works toward empathy--as in the 1988 AIDS story in which she had a lead character, Skye Cudahy (Robin Christopher) become so irrational with AIDS fear that she almost killed Cindy (Ellen Wheeler). Nixon sees both sides, and usually has a third type of character--perhaps in a position similar to that of most viewers--who is pulled in both directions.
Characteristic of Nixon's soaps (and William Bell's The Young and the Restless, in the same mid-1970s period), AMC hooked young people and men. The focus on young adult characters included not only romance--and sex--but also their growing pains. AMC, from its earliest days, presented Erica Kane, the willful but winningly vulnerable teenager who, in the hands of Agnes Nixon and Susan Lucci, has grown through multiple lovers (usually husbands) and careers. She has found her "lost" father, a surprise daughter and in the 1990s--even some women friends. In the early 1980s, AMC's popularity soared as young people raced home (or to their dormitory lounges) at lunch time to watch the classic star-crossed romance of Jenny Gardner (Kim Delaney) and Greg Nelson (Lawrence Lau). The issue was class: Jenny was from a troubled, lower-class family; Greg's mother, Enid Nelson, was Pine Valley's stereotypical snob. Equally popular were Angie Morgan (Debbi Morgan) and Jesse Hubbard (Darnell Williams), soap opera's first African-American super-couple. Delaney and Williams, an Emmy winner, were given daytime drama's highest honor when they left AMC.
Their characters were killed off so no other actor could play them. Jenny Gardner's kid brother Tad (Michael Knight)--flirting, cheating on girls, and otherwise adventuring--epitomized another Agnes Nixon gift to soap opera: humor, the "lighter" moment amid the Sturm und Drang. In 1996, Knight's Tad is still AMC's incorrigibly susceptible male adventurer, representative of another reason Nixon is known as the queen of soap opera writing. A waif-foundling, Tad is an archetypal character, his story a myth, or fairy-folk tale. He has two sets of parents. His biological parents consist of an evil father, Ray Gardner (dead since the 1980s), and a loving but ditzy mother, Nixon's famed comic creation, Opal Gardner. But Tad was raised by Joe and Ruth Martin (Ray McConnell and Mary Fickett, retired in the mid-1990s and replaced by Lee Meriwether), after his father abandoned him in a park. Joe and Ruth Martin are the central father and mother of AMC, and in folk-myth terms, they are the good parents, as steadfast as Tad's blood parents are unreliable and frightening.
Nixon's other archetypal creations include "tentpole" characters, usually older women such as Erica's mother Mona Tyler (the late Frances Heflin) and Myrtle Fargate (Eileen Heckart). Tentpole characters, says Nixon, are "the Greek chorus, in a sense ..., telling the audience how to feel."
Besides folk myth, Nixon also draws on the religious and mystical. One of her favorite tales is from the third soap opera she created (with the late Douglas Marland), Loving (ABC, 1983; now The City). Archetypal good-bad twins Keith and Jonathan (John Hurley) battle, and in one twist, evil Jonathan, fallen from Golden Gate Bridge, returns with supernatural powers. Nixon says Jonathan made a pact with a devil. Wisely, the pact-making was not shown, and the evil one, though shown, was unlabelled--he left the Bridge area, slithering away as a snake. For this story, she cites as sources Faust and C.S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters.
Agnes Nixon, in her long and much-honored tenure as queen of soap opera, has created a treasure trove of characters and stories as rich as Aladdin's, tales from the deepest depths of our fears and the starriest heights of our dreams. She is indeed "the storyteller."
Williams AGNES (ECKHARDT) NIXON. Attended Northwestern University. Married: Robert Nixon; 4 children. Freelance writer for radio and television; creator, packager and head writer for various daytime television series. Member: International Radio and TV Society; National Academy of TV Arts and Sciences; The Friars Club; Board of Harvard Foundation. Recipient: National Academy of TV Arts and Sciences Trustees Award, 1981; Junior Diabetes Foundation Super Achiever Award; Wilmer Eye Institute Award; American Women In Radio and TV Communicator Award, 1984; American Academy of Achievement Gold Plate Award, 1993; TV Hall of Fame, 1993. Address: 774 Conestoga Rd, Rosemont, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. 19010.
1951 Studio One 1952-54 Robert Montgomery Presents 1957-59 As the World Turns (co-creator) 1959-65 The Guiding Light (head writer) 1965-67 Another World (head writer) 1967- One Life To Live (creator, packager) 1970- All My Children (creator, packager and head writer) 1983- Loving (later called The City, creator, packager)
1981 The Manions of America (creator)
1952-53 Hallmark Hall of Fame
Allen, Robert C. Speaking of Soap Operas. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.
Edmondson, Madeleine, and David Rounds. The Soaps: Daytime Serials of Radio and TV. New York: Stein and Day, 1973.
Intintoli, Michael James. Taking Soaps Seriously: The World of The Guiding Light. New York: Praeger, 1984.
Wakefield, Dan. All Her Children. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1976.
Williams, Carol T. "It's Time for My Story": Soap Opera Sources, Structure, and Response. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1992.