Legendary soap opera writer Agnes Nixon turns 90 today. The Museum of Broadcast Communications wrote a wonderful summary of Nixon's career:
Often termed the "queen" of contemporary soap opera, Agnes Nixon is best known, and most honored, for introducing social issues into the soaps. 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, 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 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; later 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."
Read some of our favorite links/features below that include Nixon from over the years:
- Agnes Nixon Honored: Queen of the Modern Soap Opera
- FLASHBACK: Agnes Nixon - They're Happy To Be Hooked 1968
- Susan Lucci & Agnes Nixon as Erica & Mona
- Agnes Nixon on AMC/OLTL: 'I will do everything possible to keep them alive'
- Agnes Nixon donates scripts to Penn
- FLASHBACK: Now a Soap Opera About Negroes 1968
- Ellen Holly, ONE LIFE TO LIVE, Racism & The Soap Opera, Part 1: Agnes Nixon & Bringing The Black Audience To ABC
- FLASHBACK: Mirth Joins Melodrama In Soaps 1989 - Brian Frons, Jill Farren Phelps, Agnes Nixon
- Michael E. Knight: Agnes Nixon Has "seen real idiots come in and mess with her legacy"
- FLASHBACK: ONE LIFE TO LIVE Hits Quarter Center; Still The Soap With A Social Conscience 1993
- WATCH: ONE LIFE TO LIVE Celebrates 40 Years of Erika Slezak
- FLASHBACK: Sex and Suffering in the Afternoon 1976
- The Wisner Washam Interview
- Julia Barr: It was never broken when they started to fix it
- Robin Strasser Reflects On Constance Ford
- Agnes Nixon has another life to live
- Agnes Nixon among Library of American Broadcasting honorees
- Agnes Nixon honored at Knock Out Abuse gala
- Show Creator Agnes Nixon To Appear On ALL MY CHILDREN
- 25 College Classes Based on TV Shows