As the World Has Turned, So Has Helen Wagner
By Melinda Henneberger
The New York Times
May 29, 1994 (Page 228)
Helen Wagner has been playing Nancy Hughes on AS THE WORLD TURNS since Mamie Eisenhower was a fan and a soap opera divorcee could remarry only after the timely death of her former husband. Ms. Wagner delivered the show's first line in 1956, and 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.
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.
Ms. Wagner's evolution as Nancy Hughes offers a window on how the soaps have changed, technically and socially, since organ music dramatized the shocking discovery that Nancy's grandson had been caught stealing change from his father's trousers. Her life on the soap has taken her from sparring with a rebellious teen-age daughter to coping with a husband's Alzheimer's disease -- from a time when an illicit affair on the show drew sacks of hate mail to a current story line about a woman carrying a baby conceived with an egg donated by her daughter, whom her much younger husband seems to be falling for.
No one else has lasted so long in a medium populated mostly by young actors hoping to join soap alumnae like Meg Ryan and Demi Moore in Hollywood. But for older actors -- particularly women -- for whom roles are in short supply, soaps represent lucrative, steady work and attract veterans like Anne Meara and Claire Bloom, who are on the current daytime roster. Ms. Wagner, who is 75, will not discuss her salary, but most soap stars make upward of $100,000 a year.
"She's a beloved presence in the soap world," says Jason Bonderoff, managing editor of Soap Opera Digest, who calls her "daytime's answer to Angela Lansbury."
Ms. Wagner has had some dry periods, including three years in the early 80's when she had no contract and appeared on screen only occasionally. But her longevity on the show, at 38 years and counting, is remarkable in a world in which a lifetime is 13 weeks -- the standard contract length.
"What actor has that kind of run?" says Dan Frazer, Ms. Wagner's television husband, formerly a police captain on the series KOJAK. He proudly notes his own 10-year stint on the show.
Before she signed a 13-week contract at the age of 37, Ms. Wagner, who is from Lubbock, Tex., 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 her early soap days, she received fan mail addressed simply "Nancy Hughes, New York City," much of it seeking -- and offering -- household advice. One woman wrote to complain that Nancy had allowed her television daughter, Penny, to lick her fingers while icing a cake. ("Disgusting!") Her favorite note reads: "Nancy: You do the dirtiest, filthiest thing on TV. You put your cup towel over your shoulder. I wish you'd stop it and stop Penny from doing it, too. Signed, Four Clean People from Trenton."
Now most of her mail asks for advice on dealing with Alzheimer's or congratulates her on her realistic treatment of the subject.
In the 50's, Nancy epitomized middle-class suburban motherhood, and viewers loved her Depression-era values: she was well scrubbed but never fashionable, fought with her lawyer husband over things like joining the country club, which she considered elitist, and chose to vacuum her own rugs, thank you, because she was uncomfortable supervising hired help.
Neither Nancy nor her husband ever had so much as an extramarital flirtation, but there were major disagreements, as when her husband suggested that his brother the ex-convict move in with them. And she didn't speak to him for weeks after he asked her to testify in a murder case; she considered such an appearance unseemly, even if her friend had been done in.
Clips from the 60's show scenes like a downhearted kindergarten teacher, a friend of Nancy's daughter, saying she is trying to "at least do something useful with my time," and getting a lecture from her mother, who advises a serious manhunt. Married women dusted (in pearls and high heels) if they were good and lounged if they were bad. Minorities were largely absent, everyone was middle class, and absolutely nothing was played for laughs.
Between scenes were the commercials that put the soap in soap opera, like the one featuring Mrs. Sandra Young, who an announcer says has agreed to test the softness of laundry washed in Ivory Snow. Closing her eyes, Mrs. Young tries mightily to detect which of her cheeks is being rubbed with a cotton ball, and which with a diaper washed in Ivory Snow. ("That's crazy!" she cries. "I chose the diaper!")
In those days, Nancy spent lots of time trying to run her children's lives, but even more time discussing her efforts. Irna Phillips, who created the show, "always said she wrote for women with half an eye on the television screen and half on the ironing board or the cooking," Ms. Wagner says, "so you only had to watch two or three days a week to stay with the story."
The most heralded changes in soaps have been the introduction of steamy love scenes and story lines involving social problems from racism to AIDS. But soaps today are also funnier and faster paced and driven more by story than character.
"It used to be like dropping in to see what your friends the Hughes were up to that day," Ms. Wagner says. Often, they weren't doing much. In one scene from the early 60's, the Hugheses' friends the Lowell family spent a very long time discussing whether they liked their den or their living room better.
The show was taped live until 1976, the same year it was expanded to an hourlong format. When President Kennedy was shot, the actors finished the entire half-hour episode without knowing anything had happened. The show's organist told them the news as they left the studio.
"That's my dubious claim to fame," Ms. Wagner says in her dressing room before rehearsal. "I'm in the Smithsonian on tape, saying, 'I gave it a great deal of thought, Grandpa,' as Cronkite broke the story."
As the years passed, even Nancy changed with the times, shocking all of the television town of Oakdale, a Chicago suburb, by falling for a blue-collar kind of guy within a year after the 1986 death of her longtime television husband, Don MacLaughlin. She shocked Ms. Wagner too, who felt it was "much too soon" for Nancy to remarry.
Through it all, Ms. Wagner endured. One fan from White Plains, N.Y., says her character has maintained a following because she's a comforting presence who "really brings a lot of family feeling."
"My grandmother who died last week watched her, my mother has been watching her since before I was born, and I tape the show every day," says Melissa Weisstuch, 33, a public relations executive with a medical center. And, as Don Hastings, who has played Nancy's son Bob since 1960 says, "Even for viewers, there's a comfort in seeing someone employed for that long."
Her colleagues say she remains remarkably enthusiastic about her work, has a reputation for helping younger actors and strenuously objects to dialogue that is un-Nancylike. She also spends off hours reading about Alzheimer's. "Not a week goes by that she doesn't hand me a sheet about some new article on it," says Mr. Frazer.
She still likes to meet fans too, though she draws the line at those who try to hug her in the supermarket. And she has reluctantly stopped having lunch with the friends of friends who are fans. "They want to talk to Nancy, and I can't tell them about Penny and Bob," she says. "It's so unsatisfactory for the people you're trying to please."
On the set at an indecent hour on a recent morning -- Ms. Wagner still gets up at 4:30 A.M. and drives from her home in Westchester County to a CBS studio in Manhattan for early rehearsals -- she came running with false eyelashes in hand, ready to begin what she calls "the improving process" of makeup and hairstyling. "I can't stand to be late," she says. "I'm from the theater, where if you're late you're fired."
Her major scene this day involves a tiff with her friend Ellen, played by Patricia Bruder. Ellen suggests a support group, and Nancy reacts angrily, refusing to believe that she might need help.
In the control room, the director stops the tape several times for a conspicuous boom shadow, an actress who seems to be whispering her lines and a scene that just doesn't play. Then someone says, "Cue the ladies." Ms. Wagner's scene is taped in one take. Her husband and manager, Bob Willie, appears in her dressing room, and they leave together for home.
So will she tune in this afternoon?
"No, I'm simply not used to watching television during the day," she says, smiling. "Anyway, I have books to read, a house to clean, needlepoint to do."
In 38 years on AS THE WORLD TURNS, Helen Wagner's character, the ultra-maternal Nancy Hughes, has never tangled with an international drug cartel, come back from the dead or even had an affair. But Ms. Wagner, in the longest-running role in soaps, has taken Nancy through four decades of huge changes in soaps and society, as summarized in this chronology of her domestic adventures.
1950's -- On April 2, 1956, the first episode of AS THE WORLD TURNS opens with Nancy Hughes rolling over in her twin bed and saying: "Good morning, dear. What would you like for breakfast?" A homemaking Everywoman, Nancy is the show's heroine -- hard-working, penny-pinching and wildly overprotective of her three children.
1960's -- In her apron and three-inch pumps, Nancy makes pot roast, peels potatoes and keeps that coffee coming. James Earl Jones, playing a doctor, gives her a hysterectomy (At a time when any mention of "Female trouble" was considered indelicate). Mark Rydel marries her daughter, twice, before he dies and, in real life, goes to Hollowood to become a movie director. Between chores, Nancy has long plot-recapping chats with Grandpa (an inlaw inexplicable younger than his son), but still finds time to meddle in her grown children's lives. At one point, she decides that a rakish shoe mogul would make the perfect suitor for her amnesiac daughter: "He's successful, He works hard" -- and best of all -- "I understand from what they say that Bruce is in his early 30's," she says, making a platter of crudites. "You know how it is. You don't have to hear a great deal about a person to figure out what kind of character he has." The match is, of course, a bust. Bruce is already wooing Nancy's favorite daughter-in-law. Even Nancy's mild-mannered husband, Chris, turns frosty when her interference runs another, perfectly upstanding, daughter-in-law out of town. Nancy tries to make up. "Chris, I don't read much, as you know. I pick up a book now and then, a few magazines," she says. "Are you listening? Recently, I've come across several articles on husbands and wives. Chris, are you listening? I'm beginning to believe what they say is true, that there comes a times in a marriage when husband and wife no longer have anything to say to each other."
1970's -- A slow period for Nancy, who is now the matriarch of Oakdale. Between the television town's many weddings and funerals, she tries to keep her younger son, Dr. Bob, from being murdered by Joyce, a psychotic who is one of his several unstable wives.
1980's -- Widowed not long after her 50th wedding anniversary with Chris, Nancy is devastated but soon begins to live a little. She starts dressing better, even discovers beaded evening wear and finds love with a police lieutenant. "You filled the void in my life that I was trying to fill by being the perfect mother and grandmother," she tells him in a moonlit garden. "You made me feel like a woman again."
1990's -- Nancy raps! And she apparently reads now. She uses rap lyrics to teach a runaway teen-ager to read and volunteers at the hospital, too, eternally organizing an AIDS benefit that never quite comes together. Since last year, she has been trying to cope with her second husband's Alzheimer's disease.