The grand dame of daytime television drama, Agnes Nixon liked to say that “everyone's life is a soap opera.” For proof, she offered up her own.
She had an “abandonment complex” because her parents divorced soon after she was born. Growing up in an Irish-Catholic enclave in Nashville in the 1930s and 1940s, she felt painfully different because the other children all seemed to have fathers. Hers was “nearly psychotic” and schemed to crush her post-collegiate dream of being a writer.
He wanted his daughter to follow him into his burial garments business and arranged for her to meet Irna Phillips, a pioneering writer of radio serials who her father was certain would “set me straight” regarding the foolishness of a writing career, Nixon often said.
And then Nixon invariably inserted a soap opera staple into the story — the plot twist. During the meeting, Phillips looked up from reading the sample script that was Nixon's resume and asked, “How would you like to work for me?”
“It was one of the greatest moments of my life,” Nixon later said. “It was freedom.”
Nixon, who went on to create such enduring daytime TV dramas as “One Life to Live” and “All My Children,” died Wednesday at a senior living facility in Pennsylvania. She was 93.
Daytime stars, as well as behind-the-scenes personnel, took to social media to express their condolences.
"I am devastated to learn that we have lost Agnes," said "All My Children" star and soap opera royalty Susan Lucci. "I adored her and admired her — and I am forever grateful to her! May this liveliest and loveliest of women rest in peace."
"Days of Our Lives" head writer Dena Higley called Nixon a "tiny lady, but a force of nature," while "The Young and the Restless" actress Melissa Claire Egan remembered her as a "true trailblazer."
Robert A. Iger, chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Co., said in a statement: “It is with a heavy heart I mourn the passing of television pioneer Agnes Nixon, someone I was proud to call a friend.
“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.”
Although her characters were inevitably embroiled in melodrama, Nixon was repeatedly honored for elevating soaps during a television career that spanned more than 60 years. She brought attention to such once-taboo topics as racism, AIDS, lesbian relationships and teenage prostitution.
In 1962, Nixon wrote a story line for “The Guiding Light” on CBS about a character who develops uterine cancer and has a life-saving hysterectomy. The network and show sponsor Proctor & Gamble agreed to the plot only if the words “cancer,” “uterus” and “hysterectomy” were not used.
“I thought, well, hmmm, that's a little tough,” Nixon told National Public Radio in 2010, so she had the doctor tell the patient that she had “irregular cells, rather than possible cancer.... It was very successful, and that hooked me.”
When “One Life to Live” debuted in 1968, it featured a complicated story aimed at making viewers confront their prejudices, Nixon later said. It involved a young black woman that the audience is led to believe is white; she plans to marry a white doctor, but later falls in love with a black resident.
A man in Seattle wrote “to protest that white girl kissing that black resident,” Nixon recalled in the NPR interview and laughed. Then he said: “But I am getting confused. If she turns out to be black, I want to protest her kissing the white doctor.”
When Nixon was recognized in 2010 with a Daytime Emmy for lifetime achievement, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences said that she had “totally changed the traditionally escapist nature of daytime serials while straining to make the world a better place.”
She wasn’t trying to “break barriers,” Nixon said in 1999 on the TV biography “Intimate Portraits,” but thought it was insane “to say that entertainment and public service can never be in the same story.”
In 1981, the television academy had given Nixon its highest honor, the Trustees Award, for “distinguished service to television and the public.” She was the first woman to receive the distinction, joining an elite group that includes Edward R. Murrow and Bob Hope.
After writing the initial weeks of “Search for Tomorrow” for CBS in 1951, she played a role in the success of six other soap operas.
She helped Phillips launch “As the World Turns” on CBS in 1956 and, two years later, joined the network’s “Guiding Light” as head writer. In 1964, she took charge of NBC’s ratings-challenged “Another World” and turned it around.
Within four years, ABC came calling with a powerful enticement — creative control. Her husband, Robert Nixon, left his job as a Chrysler Corp. executive, and the couple formed a company to produce her first solo effort, “One Life to Live.”
The show quickly won praise for realism after premiering in 1968. A story on teenage venereal disease caused 50,000 viewers to write in, and an official at the Centers for Disease Control told Nixon: “You've shown us how to reach the teenagers of America,” the Los Angeles Times said in 1991.
When ABC wanted a second daytime drama, Nixon came up with “All My Children” in 1970. She also co-created a third soap for the network, “Loving,” that aired from 1983 to 1995.
Nixon readily acknowledged “All My Children” as her favorite dramatic offspring. The show was set in Pine Valley, the presumptive dramatic equivalent of Rosemont, the Philadelphia suburb where Nixon lived in a pre-Revolutionary War home. She based archvillain Adam Chandler, who didn't “know how to love,” on her father and gave her favorite character, wickedly manipulative Erica Kane, abandonment issues.
Lucci became one of daytime’s most popular stars playing Erica from the show’s earliest days until the program’s end in September 2011. She repeatedly called Nixon “a genius as a storyteller.”
When “One Life to Live” left the air in early 2012, few network soap operas remained. As women increasingly entered the workforce, viewership eroded and the genre continued to lose ground to cable and offerings on the Internet.
“The name of entertainment is escape,” Nixon said in 1981 in People magazine, and it made her wealthy, one excruciatingly slow plot turn at a time. In the mid-1970s, Nixon had sold both “One Life” and “All My Children” to ABC for an undisclosed sum.
“I loved the writing and I hated the business,” Nixon told The Times in 1998, when it was reported that she earned more than $1 million a year.
She was born Agnes Eckhardt on Dec. 10, 1922, in Chicago, to Harry and Agnes Eckhardt and grew up in Nashville living with her bookkeeper mother and extended family. Previous reports put her year of birth as 1927 but the announcement of her funeral Mass said she was born five years earlier.
At Northwestern University, she studied drama alongside Charlton Heston and Patricia Neal but felt “outclassed” as an actor, Nixon later said, and turned to writing.
Days after earning a bachelor's degree in the late 1940s, Nixon was writing for Phillips on a radio soap. When Phillips headed west to work in television, Nixon moved to New York to write for early prime-time TV dramas.
On a blind date in 1950, she met her future husband and soon agreed to marry him on one condition — that she could continue her career. They settled in the Philadelphia area and had four children in five years. With no time to travel to New York City for work, she returned to Phillips and soaps, writing at home and mailing in her scripts.
Having a bustling career in the “pre-Betty Friedan days” was tough and made her feel like a misfit, she told the Washington Post in 1983.
For years, she and her husband split their time between the Philadelphia area and New York City. After he died in 1996, Nixon said she found writing “All My Children” therapeutic.
By then, she had long devoted herself to long-range plotting and still followed her mentor’s maxim: “We don’t just live the high points and low points, we live minute by minute.”
Nixon is survived by her four children, Cathy, Mary, Robert and Emily; and 11 grandchildren.
Nelson is a former Times staff writer.
5:10 p.m.: This article was updated with reaction to the death of Agnes Nixon.
This article was originally published at 2:35 p.m.