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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Photo courtesy of Agnes Nixon
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."
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.
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."
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,
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,
1981 The Manions of America (creator)
Hallmark Hall of Fame
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of North Carolina Press, 1985.
Madeleine, and David Rounds. The Soaps: Daytime Serials of Radio
and TV. New York: Stein and Day, 1973.
Michael James. Taking Soaps Seriously: The World of The Guiding
Light. New York: Praeger, 1984.
Dan. All Her Children. Garden City, New York: Doubleday,
Carol T. "It's Time for My Story": Soap Opera Sources, Structure,
and Response. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1992.
also Soap Opera;