But more than anything else, Lee Phillip Bell, who died Feb. 25 at the age of 91, was remembered by friends and colleagues as a gracious, erudite and kindhearted person who was the definition of a “great lady,” in the words of “Y&R” star Eric Braeden.
“When she walked into a room, you just knew that this was someone worthy of enormous respect,” Braeden tells Variety. “You knew from talking to her that she was someone who was so informed about various subject matters and was so used to talking intelligently on television about them.”
Phillip Bell got her start in her native Chicago when television was in its infancy. She was a forerunner of future Chicago-based talk show personalities Oprah Winfrey and Phil Donahue in her role as host and producer of “The Lee Phillip Show,” which aired in the afternoons for CBS’ WBBM-TV starting in 1953.
Phillip Bell was a regular on Chicago airwaves for 30 years. She was the first woman to earn the Governors Award from the Chicago chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. During her long run, she also broke ground as the producer and narrator of numerous news specials that tackled social issues such as race relations, divorce, rape and women in prison. On the lighter side, guests that passed through her talk show ranged from Lucille Ball and Jack Benny to the Rolling Stones to presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.
From 1973 on, she was also a guiding force on “Y&R.” She married soap opera writer William J. Bell in 1954. Bill Bell, as he was known, had been a scribe for “Guiding Light” and “Days of Our Lives,” among other shows, but came into his own as the big boss of “Y&R’s” fictional Genoa City and its warring families.
Phillip Bell and Bell seemed to naturally find the division of labor on the shows that worked for them.
“Think of Bill and Lee as yin and yang. Different sides of the same coin,” says “B&B” star John McCook. McCook was a cast member of “Y&R” in the 1970s and then was recruited by the Bells to be a core player on “B&B” from its inception in 1987.
It was clear to those who worked on the shows that Phillip Bell had as much influence over the direction of the show as her husband. She pushed for “Y&R” to address contemporary social issues amid the traditional soap opera flights of fancy.
“He was the writer and the guy who drove the show. She was the one who wanted the shows to be different. They were a wonderful, beautiful couple in those years,” McCook says.
Phillip Bell’s warm personality was also a contrast to her husband, who died in 2005. Braeden recalls Bill Bell arriving at the production offices at CBS Television City daily at 4 a.m. to get an early start on his writing chores for the day.
“Bill was like one of the old-school bosses. He was a complete character,” Braeden says. “Lee was the steadying hand. I’ve been able to do what I do [on ‘Y&R’] for the last 40 years because of them.”
Phillip Bell maintained a regular presence in the office even after her husband’s death. She was the matriarch who knew the names of everyone on the cast and crew — and their families.
“I think it was what she’d learned from being on television all those years. She was always the gracious host,” McCook says. Phillip Bell logged several cameo appearances on “Y&R” and “B&B” over the years.
The Bells’ three children followed their parents into the entertainment industry. William J. Bell is president of Bell-Phillip Television Prods., home of both soaps. Bradley Bell is executive producer and head writer of “B&B.” Lauralee Bell Martin is an actor and a longtime “Y&R” player. The fact that two generations of Bells worked so closely together has long helped make the “Y&R” and “B&B” universe feel like a true family.
“It’s unique in this world that shows like this would be run by one family,” McCook says. “The beauty of it is, the children learned the qualities that they need to keep it going from their parents.”