William J. Bell, who passed away recently, was a legend and a pioneer in daytime television. Bill created or wrote for the shows that became the backdrop of American living rooms in the golden years of the 1950s, the ’60s and beyond.
In 1978, when I first met Bill, my first impression was of a man whose cup was never half empty or half full, but forever overflowing. His humor was corny and fetching; he loved a practical joke, whether he was the instigator or the recipient.
His work, however, was another matter. In a genre considered by many to be campy or trite, Bill approached his writing with a passion bordering on zealotry. He honored the form and the work it took to execute it. A Bill Bell show consisted of moments — brilliant moments, character-driven moments — and the moment was all that mattered.
A typical writer’s day in this environment consists of fleshing out dozens of such moments weekly. To do it well, Bill felt, one must narrow the focus to the current moment being written. This is fine if one is writing a screenplay or a telepic, but when facing the daunting task of creating 250 original (and hopefully compelling) hours of television annually, the challenge of emotionally immersing oneself in every individual moment is almost impossible.
This was Bill’s crowning achievement: to inspire his writers, directors and producers to focus their talents on every individual moment of conflict, emotion, romance and intrigue — and to focus as though it was the last scene we’d ever write, direct, produce or perform. How did he do it? By example. No one worked harder or cared more than Bill.
To all of us, “The Young and the Restless” was never a soap opera. It was the mantra that the present moment is all that’s available, and in our case the present moment most often belonged to Victor or Nikki or Kay Chancellor — through whom we spoke, cried and laughed.
Bill was a writer’s writer. He drew from a wealth of family love. We worked in his study — a converted dining room –from 9 a.m. until late into the night. The door was always open to his wife and children. His young daughter Lauralee would often pass through, lingering to touch Dad’s ear or nose, fanning away his cigarette smoke in disgust and generally making a nuisance of herself as we were desperately trying to put together yet another show. But not once did Bill ever chide or ask her to leave.
This man knew whence his inspiration grew. His other family, the “Y&R” characters, were treated with similar love and respect. No one protected their characters the way Bill did. Every word that came out of their mouths, every mood and attitude, was scrutinized for consistency and damage control.
But to many insiders, Bill’s most salient quality — arguably the key to his success — was his demand for control over his product. Bill believed, perhaps to a fault, that the enemy was anyone, other than one of his writers, who attempted to change or influence his work. He was tough and unrelenting in this regard — and he was generally left alone.
Collaboration consisted of him and his writers, whom he groomed from the moment they came on board. One could certainly argue that Bill was a dinosaur. But to this day, the show continues in the No. 1 slot — a position it has held each week for the last 16 years.
There may not be another Bill Bell in this era. The demands of writing contemporary television, the dilution of audience, the financial challenges, all have conspired to create a different form. Still, the vision of our mentor continues to guide us daily as we attempt to make magic. We salute you and love you, Bill — as does your family at “Y&R,” Sony and CBS Television.
(Smith is exec producer-head writer of “The Young and the Restless.”)