Agnes Nixon: Hall of Fame Tribute
“Life is ‘soapish,’” says Agnes Nixon, the creator and head writer of ABC’s All My Children, Loving, and One Life to Live, who began writing television serials in the early 1950s. “Everything in life is grist for our mill."
Nixon sees her programs as distinguished from other soaps by the fact that they are both informative and topical. “We're not rabble-rousers, but we try to help people cope with life. Consciousness-raising may be too fatuous a term, but we try to keep as current as today’s headlines.”
Tom Murphy, Capital Cities/ABC chairman, says, “Agnes is one of the four or five most important people at ABC. She certainly has her finger on the pulse of the American audience. Her contributions have been enormous, and we call on her for advice on many subjects. Agnes is a fascinating woman whose success has never gone to her head.”
Born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, Agnes Eckhart Nixon now splits her weeks between her Upper East Side apartment in Manhattan and her picturesque pre-Revolutionary farmhouse on Pennsylvania's Main Line. The mother of four children and the grandmother of seven, Nixon grew up in an Irish-Catholic enclave as the only child of a single mother after her father left when she was three months old.
“I didn’t know anyone else whose parents were divorced," Nixon remembers. “Other children’s parents were dead, and that was acceptable. My father was a very sick man emotionally, and emotional abuse can be worse than physical because it doesn’t show up on an x-ray.”
Nixon describes her storytelling techniques via one particularly vivid childhood memory. “I was in a tornado when I was nine years old,” Nixon recalls, “and I think of a soap opera as a tornado in slow motion. Tornadoes go forward, but they also have internal movement. The long-term story is the tornado going forward, but every day we also have some internal movement with characters that the audience doesn’t want to miss. Our motto is ‘Make Them Laugh, Make Them Cry, Make Them Wait.’ Never do today what you can put off ‘til tomorrow. People like suspense.”
In her final year studying speech and drama at Northwestern University, her father requested that she join his mortuary business in Chicago, which she refused to do. In a scheme that backfired, Nixon’s father contrived through a mutual friend for his daughter to meet with veteran radiosoap creator Irna Phillips in the hope that Phillips would put a stop to what he regarded as his daughter’s unrealistic ambitions.
“My father was bemoaning what he thought was this crazy idea of my being a writer,” Nixon reminisces, “and he thought that Irna was a tough businesswoman who would set me straight. I went to see her and gave her a script that I had written at school called No Flags Flying. When Irna finished reading it aloud, she said, ‘How would you like to work for me?’ When I told my father, he was shocked. But the long arm of coincidence is God’s way of performing miracles.”
For six months, Nixon wrote for Phillips’ Woman in White radio serial before relocating to New York to write for several prime-time dramatic series during the Golden Age of Television, including The Philco Playhouse, The Hallmark Hall of Fame, and Studio One.
As she raised her family, she was able to write at home for such serials as Search for Tomorrow, As the World Turns, and The Guiding Light.
Twenty-five years ago Nixon began to introduce socially relevant plots in her soaps and revolutionized the genre. She continued that process when ABC invited her to create One Life to Live, Loving, and All My Children in the late 1960s.
“My shows have a core of reality,” Nixon says. “I wanted to take the soaps out of WASP Valley. All the soaps do it now, but we blazed the trail. For example, when ‘Black Is Beautiful’ was a popular slogan, we featured the story of a black actress who had to pass for white because she couldn’t get any jobs as a black actress.”
Nixon also credits humor as being an important part of her programs’ successes. She says, “Life is funny, and it is a lot easier to handle if you can laugh at it. And a lot of messages are more palatable with humor.”
Nixon believes that humor and depth of characterization have sustained the vitality of her most prominent character, the married-eight-times Erica Kane of All My Children.
“The only reason that Erica has survived for 23 years,” Nixon says, “is because the audience understands where she’s coming from. And I make sure that about every three or four months the fact that she was abandoned by her father when she was nine years old is touched upon for any new viewer.
“Erica has abandonment complex, one of the most lethal blows to the emotional psyche. But out of this injury, instead of being ‘Poor Little Me,’ Erica is this outrageous character. Once we had a plane crash, and a bear came up to Erica, and she said, ‘I’m Erica Kane. You can’t touch me.’”
Susan Lucci, who created Kane 23 years ago, regards Nixon as the quintessential contemporary woman.
“When I came to know Agnes Nixon she was already a tremendous success," Lucci says. “She was someone whom I felt to be a perfect role model for me as a professional woman. She embodies the whole female experience. She has a wonderful career as well as a happy marriage and family. She was one of the first women I ever met who had accomplished that. And all the while I was very impressed with how warm, feminine, humorous and attractive she is. She was just everything I hoped to be as a woman.
“But at the heart of Agnes' success is a tremendous talent. Whatever wonderful, rare combination is inside Agnes, she is a brilliant storyteller. She genuinely loves spinning those stories. Some people say she’s larger than life, and on some days she appears to be larger than life.”
Nixon describes her gift for storytelling in almost mystical terms. “I grew up with the Irish tradition of storytelling,” she says. “I went to a gypsy fortuneteller once, and she said, ‘Don’t be proud. Don’t be vain. It all comes from an Irish ancestor on the ‘Other Side.’”
Nixon’s 19th Irish-American miniseries The Manions of America marked her entry into prime-time drama. But as a long-form storyteller, she prefers the advantages of the daily drama.
“We write continuing stories the way that Charles Dickens did,” Nixon says, “with interesting characters that the audience can identify with and believable and suspenseful situations. If I find the character interesting, the audience does. Our shows are not like nighttime dramas, which might have 26 hours per year. We do 260 hours a year and use up story like mad. You don’t have to be crazy to do that, but it helps.
“But I have a lot of wonderful associates now. After we did our 6,000th episode of All My Children, I realized that if we were a prime-time show, I would have been working for 240 years. And because we have no reruns and no reductions in advertising rates, the advertisers love us as much in July as they do in January.
“And I’m pretty important to the shows because I do have a rather unusual memory. I remember everything that happened, so we don’t have any continuity problems. And I play Freud all the time. It all gets down to this: What makes us tick?”
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Agnes Nixon's induction in 1993.
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