While her primary goal has been to entertain, Agnes Nixon has long affected viewers’ hearts and minds by incorporating social issues such as drug addiction, abortion, homosexuality and alcoholism into her serials.
Nixon, the writer, producer and creator of “All My Children” and “One Life to Live” — as well as “Loving,” the first soap to talk about AIDS — will be given the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 37th annual Daytime Entertainment Emmy Awards, and it’s no mystery why.
“Agnes has set the bar when it comes to telling stories that are socially aware as well as entertaining,” says Susan Lucci, a Daytime Emmy winner for “All My Children.” “She has a mandate first to entertain and then inform.”
Harry Eckhardt, Nixon’s father, wanted his daughter to go into the family burial garment business. Hoping to distance Nixon from her interest in writing through intimidation, he set up a meeting between her and Irna Phillips, the Chicago-based creator/head writer of daytime serials, known for her high standards and commanding presence.
Phillips, who ushered radio soaps into the television age, read aloud Nixon’s writing sample, a play she’d written in college. “I wanted to climb down the dumbwaiter,” Nixon recalls. Instead of dissuading her, Phillips, impressed with Nixon’s talent, offered her a job.
“(Irna) became a great teacher and a great friend,” Nixon says.
Nixon didn’t take long to make an impact. In 1962, after she lost a friend to curable cervical cancer, she was inspired to write a character getting a Pap smear on “The Guiding Light.” CBS had concerns, however.
“They said I couldn’t use the words ‘uterus,’ ‘cancer’ or ‘hysterectomy,’?” Nixon says. “That got my Irish temper up!”
Next, she took over the ailing NBC sudser “Another World” from head writer James Lipton and created Rachel Davis, a “have-not” who preceded Nixon’s most successful character, Lucci’s Erica.
Resuscitating “Another World” got ABC’s attention. In 1968, ABC invited the sought-after scribe to create “One Life to Live.” The soap’s canvas included Carla Grey, played by African-American actress Ellen Holly, who initially passed among Llanview citizens as a white woman. Viewers examined their own prejudices as Carla’s journey unfolded.
“As a child, I sat in the middle of a bus while distinguished black people walked past me to stand in the back,” recalls the Nashville-raised Nixon. “That ran deep and bitter with me. I asked ABC if I may do this story. They said, ‘Yes, we trust you.’ ”
Based on the success of “One Life,” ABC asked Nixon to create “Children,” which debuted in 1970.
Nixon’s characters and stories have garnered millions of fans over the decades, among them Carol Burnett. When presenting an award to Nixon in the mid-’80s, the comedy legend deadpanned from the podium to the deserving recipient — “Why’d you have to kill Jenny?” — referring to the 1984 on-screen death of the ingenue played by Kim Delaney.
“Because her damned agent wouldn’t let her stay,” Nixon laughs.
After a hiatus of several years, Nixon returned to “Children” head-writing duties in 2000. She then wrote the story of Erica accepting her teen daughter Bianca, a lesbian. Nixon knew she had to attach the tale to a core character for auds to feel the full impact.
“I got wonderful letters from some mothers who said, ‘If only I’d seen the Bianca story when I was younger,’ ” Nixon recalls.
Nixon, a real-life mother of four and grandmother of 11, is credited as being a trailblazer for working moms, but she says that she’d always planned to support herself.
“My mother, grandmother and three maiden aunts all worked,” Nixon says. “People have told me (I’m a role model), but I was just trying to get through the day before my kids got home from school so I could help them with their homework!”