Before she signed a 13-week contract with ATWT at the age of 37, Ms. Wagner played Trudy Bauer on both THE GUIDING LIGHT (original cast) and VALIANT LADY. She uttered the first words on ATWT, the now famous "Good morning, dear."
She had been a singer and stage actress, sometimes working as a church soloist to pay the rent. She had roles in "Oklahoma!" and "The Bad Seed" on Broadway, played Blanche opposite Lee Marvin in a touring production of "A Streetcar Named Desire," and often did television drama in days when the medium was experimental and actors were sometimes unpaid.
In 1963, she was on live television, debating whether her soap son should remarry his faithless ex-wife, when Walter Cronkite broke in to announce that President Kennedy had been shot.
"That's my dubious claim to fame," Ms. Wagner has said. "I'm in the Smithsonian on tape, saying, 'I gave it a great deal of thought, Grandpa,' as Cronkite broke the story."
The New York Times once said: "The character she created became an icon for a generation of women who understood her mostly futile attempts to run the perfect household and raise the perfect children. Nancy was Donna Reed with real problems in the days before soap characters traveled through time, engaged in espionage or almost routinely were reunited with evil twins."
Wagner has taken some breaks from ATWT, both voluntary and involuntary. After six months in the role of Nancy, show creator Irna Phillips fired her because she did not favor the way Wagner poured coffee. After an overwhelming consensus was reached to hire her back, Irna did so begrudgingly.
"When we went on the air, Nancy and Chris couldn't sleep in the same bed," she said. "And when we finally got a double bed, one of us had to be in the bed and the other one had to have his feet on the floor so there was no hanky-panky going on."
"You'd be surprised how much mail I got asking for advice," she added. "I got hate mail back in the early days: 'Why don't you leave your kids alone?'"
Wagner left the show again in the early 1980s. Then-producer Mary-Ellis Bunim (who later went on to produce THE REAL WORLD) wished to take the show in a different direction and wanted to gear the stories toward the younger generation by showcasing the Hughes family less. Wagner and co-star Don MacLaughlin (Chris) walked away from the show after vocal dissent in the press. She returned to the role in 1985. Nancy and Chris celebrated their 50th anniversary in 1986 as AS THE WORLD TURNS celebrated it's 30th. McLaughlin died shortly after this was taped.
In 1988, Wagner's alma mater, Monmouth College, awarded her with an honorary degree of "Doctor of Humane Letters".
Although she has played the role for almost fifty years, she never won a Daytime Emmy Award for her work until four years ago. She was finally awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award for her role on the show in May 2004 (along with Rachel Ames, John Clarke, Jeanne Cooper, Eileen Fulton, Don Hastings, Ray MacDonnell, Frances Reid and the late Ruth Warrick).
The night before that Daytime Emmy show, New York's Mayor Bloomberg had an Emmy reception at the Mayor's mansion. I was a volunteer that night and was assigned the task of escorting Helen Wagner for the evening. It was truly a pleasure and a night I'll never forget. She was 85 at the time and I was 34 and I couldn't keep up her. My only job was to keep track of her and make sure she was where she needed to be at the right time. She was full of energy and life and kept me on my toes all evening. It was such an honor to see all the wonderful daytime legends that night and also the next evening at the Emmy telecast.
I also had the pleasure of seeing Wagner at the Museum of Television and Radio the night ATWT was honored on its 50th anniversary. Hearing her stories from the early days, when the show was live and how things have changed over the years was music to the ears of this soap fan.
"It's more the people than it is the story," she said. "It was like growing up in a family. We've always been a happy show."
Longer than her ATWT role, her marriage to Robert Willey has lasted 54 years and is still going strong.
Wagner has said she has no plans to retire. "I'll just die with my boots on! That's my Texas background."