Actress Helen Wagner, who played mild-mannered Nancy Hughes on the CBS soap opera “As the World Turns” for more than a half-century and spoke its first words, has died at age 91.
She died Saturday, said the show’s New York-based production company, TeleNext Media Inc., which didn’t say where she died or what was the cause of her death.
Wagner opened “As the World Turns” when it premiered on April 2, 1956, with the words: “Good morning, dear.” She held the Guinness World Record for playing the same role on television for the longest amount of time, TeleNext Media said.
“All of us at ‘As the World Turns’ are deeply saddened by Helen’s passing,” executive producer Christopher Goutman said in a statement. “She is loved by generations of fans, and while we will miss her greatly Helen will always remain the heart and soul of ‘As the World Turns.'”
While Wagner, who was born in Lubbuck, Texas, was seen less often in later decades, no other network television performer came close to her run playing a single character.
“It has been fun to keep the character true to herself, no matter who is writing it at the moment,” she said in 1998.
She was still part of the cast, though with a small presence, in December 2009, when CBS announced that “As the World Turns” was being canceled and its last episode would air in September 2010.
“As the World Turns” was the first daytime TV drama to run a full half-hour rather than 15 minutes. It rose to No. 1 in the daytime ratings and, in the 1970s, was expended to an hour.
In a 1968 New York Times interview, Wagner called Nancy “a tentpole character.”
“Nothing ever happens to Nancy,” Wagner said. “She’s the one the others come and talk to.”
Nancy was morally upright, too: The soap opera website soaps.com put a one-word entry under her “flings and relationships”: None.
Fans often mixed up Wagner with the character she portrayed, sending her letters carping about Nancy’s homemaking or what they saw as her meddling in her children’s lives.
But the many fans who liked Nancy/Wagner could also be a problem. She told the Times in 1977 that a woman once ran up and kissed her as she shopped at a suburban supermarket. “She said, ‘Oh, Nancy, I’ve loved you so long I really must kiss you again,’ but at that point I managed to escape.”
Real life intruded on the show in historic fashion on Nov. 22, 1963, when “As the World Turns” was still performed live on air. Wagner’s character was talking about upcoming Thanksgiving plans (“I’ve thought about it, and I gave it a great deal of thought …”) when the broadcast was interrupted midsentence with a “CBS News Bulletin” sign.
Viewers then heard Walter Cronkite announcing that President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. The actors themselves weren’t told at the time.
In a 1998 Associated Press interview, Wagner said she wished her character hadn’t receded into the background in later years while most of the plot developments happened to the younger characters.
“I don’t like the making of Nancy into only an extra figure at parties,” she said. “She is too dynamic a person to be made into a ghost.”
She thought Nancy, by then twice-widowed, could provide a moral compass for younger characters on the show, giving another generation’s perspective.
“The characters now are destructive, mean, immoral, unattractive and selfish,” she said. “They care about nothing but themselves — me, me, me. That’s a dead end. That’s no life.”
Still, she loved the storytelling of daytime television and remembered the maze of complex plots from decades earlier.
Don MacLaughlin, who played Nancy’s first husband, Chris Hughes, died in 1986 at age 79, not long after the show celebrated its 30th anniversary with a special program devoted to Chris and Nancy Hughes’ 50th wedding anniversary.
Chris’ death was then written into the plotline, and Nancy later married a detective named Dan McClosky, played by Dan Frazer. McClosky’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease gave Wagner/Hughes a meaty problem onscreen for a few years, but the producers eventually killed him off, too.
Wagner, born in 1918, studied drama and music at Monmouth College in Illinois, graduating in 1938. She later helped the college raise money for a new theater.
She appeared on Broadway in the 1940s including a small role in the musical “Oklahoma!” and in off-Broadway and summer stock productions.
In 2002 Wagner received a plaque on the Buddy Holly Walk of Fame in her hometown, TeleNext Media said, and in 2004 she was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
Before gaining her “As the World Turns” gig, she also appeared on early television shows such as “The Philco Television Playhouse” and a series called “The World of Mr. Sweeney.”
She married producer Robert Willey in 1954, and over the years he served as her manager and agent as well as producing some of her stage appearances.