Agnes Nixon, known as the grande dame of daytime drama for creating, writing, and producing soap operas including “All My Children,” “One Life to Live” and “Search for Tomorrow,” died Wednesday in Rosemont, Pa. She was 93.
Nixon had been suffering complications from Parkinson’s disease, the New York Times reported.
The prolific producer was highly regarded as a pioneer for women in television who transformed the traditional soap opera by weaving real-world issues into her shows. Nixon famously modeled the fictional Pine Valley setting of “All My Children” on the suburban region where she lived outside Philadelphia. She kept her home base there even as the TV production company she ran with her husband, Robert Nixon, expanded.
Nixon was also co-creator of CBS’ long-running “As the World Turns” with her mentor, Irna Phillips, who is credited with creating the soap opera genre on radio. Early in her career, Nixon was a writer on CBS’ “The Guiding Light” and NBC’s “Another World.”
A native of Chicago, Agnes Eckhardt attended Northwestern University and decided to focus on a career as a writer. Eckhardt’s father arranged a meeting with Phillips in an effort to dissuade her from going into writing, but Phillips wound up hiring Eckhardt to work on the radio soap “Women in White.”
Nixon and Phillips co-created “Search for Tomorrow” for CBS in 1951 and “As the World Turns” in 1956. During this period, Nixon also wrote episodes of primetime anthology series including “Robert Montgomery Presents” and “The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse.”
Nixon hit her stride in the late 1960s and early 1970s as she and her husband, Robert Nixon, created “One Life to Live” and “All My Children” for ABC.
The series were notable for featuring racial and ethnic diversity among its characters, in contrast to the existing soaps. Susan Lucci’s Erica Kane character from “All My Children” became a TV icon and synonymous with the soap genre. “All My Children” pushed the envelope in addressing issues such as the anti-war movement and by having Kane undergo a legal abortion in 1971, nearly two years before abortion was addressed in primetime on CBS’ “Maude.”
On “One Life to Live,” the character canvas included Carla Grey, played by African-American actress Ellen Holly, who initially passed among citizens of the fictional town of Llanview 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,” Nixon told Variety in 2010. “That ran deep and bitter with me. I asked ABC if I may do this story. They said, ‘Yes, we trust you.’ ”
In the 1980s Nixon expanded her soap empire with ABC’s “Loving.” The show was revamped in 1995 into “The City,” which was designed to have a faster MTV-esque pace, but the reboot only lasted another two years. “All My Children” and “One Life to Live” were canceled by ABC in 2011 after 40-plus years on the air. The declining audience for the soaps that helped propel ABC to parity with CBS and NBC in the 1970s and ’80s reflected the changing landscape for women in the U.S. workforce and the extreme fragmentation of the daytime TV audience.
Nixon’s other credits included the 1981 ABC miniseries “The Manions of America,” a story of Irish immigrants that featured a young Pierce Brosnan.
Over her long career, Nixon earned five Daytime Emmy Awards and five Writers Guild Awards, among many other honors. She was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 2010. She received a lifetime achievement honor from the Daytime Emmy Awards the same year.
Bob Iger, chairman and CEO of Walt Disney Co., hailed Nixon’s legacy and impact on ABC.
“It is with a heavy heart I mourn the passing of television pioneer Agnes Nixon, someone I was proud to call a friend,” Iger said. “Agnes’ impact on daytime television and pop culture is undeniable. She was the first to champion socially relevant topics, and the towns and characters Agnes brought to life leave an indelible imprint on television that will be remembered forever.”
Nixon’s survivors include three daughters, a son, 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Robert Nixon died in 1996.
Nixon recounted stories of her early days in television and the evolution of the soap opera in her 1997 interview with the Archive of American Television.
Correction: Nixon’s age was previously reported as 88.
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