Inside the life of 'All My Children' creator Agnes Nixon

Susan Lucci, Judith Light and others remember the soap opera writer.

March 21, 2017, 12:18 PM

— -- For over four decades, murder, deceit, kidnappings and all kinds of hysteria ensued. It was small-town America portrayed in a sensational way against the backdrop of a more innocent time.

It was pre-social media, before skyrocketing divorce rates, and before bad behavior was celebrated or rewarded.

All across America, people were glued to their television sets, living vicariously through someone else’s naughty or scandalous lives on the soap operas "All My Children" and "One Life to Live." The muscle and brains behind these shows? A devout Catholic, wife and mother of four: creator Agnes Nixon.

Nixon completed her memoir, "My Life to Live," in September 2016 but it is just being released today. In her heartfelt book, she opened up about her Irish roots and the lessons she learned about working outside the home from the women in her family. Those lessons would help Nixon forge ahead during a time in television when men ruled the airwaves.

Nixon also revealed where many of her characters and plots came from; one in particular came out of the heartbreak of losing her first love in World War II.

Two days after writing the final words in her book, Nixon died peacefully in her sleep. She was 93.

“Agnes lived beyond the boundaries of the norm,” Judith Light, who won two Daytime Emmys for her role on "One Life to Live," told ABC News. “She was one of the relatively few of that era who was leading the way and changing the dynamic in the world for women. When I was in her presence she exuded self-confidence and was the personification of grace and gentility with an unmistakable power surging beneath.”

Before Nixon created "All My Children" and "One Life to Live," she worked as a writer at the soap opera "Guiding Light." According to her memoir, Nixon wrote a storyline in the early-1960s surrounding early detection of uterine cancer with a Pap test after she lost a friend to cancer.

"Guiding Light" executives were outraged, but Nixon stood her ground. She was eventually granted permission to write the storyline, but was forbidden from using the words cancer, uterus or hysterectomy in her scripts. Nixon’s story, one the first involving cancer on television, resonated with millions of women, who, after watching the show, scheduled Pap tests.

“Agnes changed the world for woman although I don’t think she set out to do that,” Light said. “She simply owned herself and knew she was good? She just happened to be a woman in a time when woman were generally not expected to create big things. I will always be grateful to Agnes Nixon for creating this place that changed not only my career, but also my life.”

In 1968, Nixon created her own soap opera, "One Life to Live," and after a year, ABC executives asked Nixon to develop another soap opera. Little did they know, sitting in the bottom drawer of Nixon’s desk was an outline for a show she had already written, she wrote in her memoir.

ABC quickly gave the show the green light, and "All My Children," which became one of the most popular soaps of all time, was born.

As the January 1970 "All My Children" premiere date approached, panic set in for Nixon, she wrote in her memoir. She still did not have an actress to play the determined, teenage bad girl, Erica Kane.

Casting directors went across the country looking for an actress, but were having no success until they met Susan Lucci, then 23. Immediately, a videotape of Lucci’s audition was sent to Nixon’s home. Nixon admitted in her memoir she had failed at conjuring up an image of who Erica Kane was, until she saw Lucci.

“She made such an impression on me because that was the first time I saw a woman with designer clothes on,” Lucci, now 70, told ABC News. “She embodied a successful woman in business in New York. You could clearly see she was the woman in charge, and an artist at the same time.”

After Lucci stepped into the role of Erica Kane, Nixon told a number of important stories through the character. One of those came in 1973, shortly after the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in Roe v. Wade, affirming a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, when Erica had television's first legal abortion. Audiences were divided, but Nixon didn't mind the criticism.

"There was no preaching," Lucci said of Nixon's stories. "She was too busy to preach. She told stories and told everybody's point of view. She was inclusive."

In addition to abortion, Erica also helped tell stories about rape and addiction. And, when Nixon wanted to tell the story of a lesbian "coming out," she wrote that she knew it had to be Erica's daughter, Bianca.

Nixon was praised for the honest portrayal of how a parent deals with their child's sexuality. The storyline eventually resulted in America’s first lesbian kiss on daytime TV.

Nixon said her storytelling philosophy was "make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em wait," something she credited to the days of vaudeville. While telling socially relevant stories on "All My Children," Nixon also infused glamour, adventure and a lot of romance.

One of the most popular love stories in the history of “All My Children” was the one of Angie Baxter and Jesse Hubbard, played by Debbi Morgan and Darnell Williams.

Angie and Jesse were African-American teenagers from opposite sides of the tracks who fell in love. The audience rooted for them and could not get enough of their love story. It was another benchmark for Nixon. Angie and Jesse were daytime's first African-American “supercouple.”

The love between Angie and Jesse remained part of the "All My Children” fabric for decades. Through their story, the actor who played Jesse, Darnell Williams, formed a close bond with Nixon. From the time they met, Williams says he remembers Nixon’s being very helpful, supportive and warm.

"She was a perfect blend of corporate, arts and humanity," Williams said. "What I'll miss the most about Agnes is that warm, beautifully embracing Irish smile of hers. It was always like family."

In 1995, after thousands of episodes and countless cliffhangers, new characters captured the attention of daytime viewers: those associated with the O.J. Simpson trial. From January through October, the twists and turns of a real-life murder mystery, involving one of the most celebrated athletes of all time, kept viewers on the edge of their seats and eclipsed the popularity of the scripted soap opera.

In the first three months of 1995, at least a million fewer households tuned in to the soap operas from the previous year. Additionally, new talk shows were debuting at warp speed and an increasingly number of cable channels gave people more options for programming. Soap operas never recovered in the ratings.

Finally, after more than four decades, on April 14, 2011, ABC canceled "All My Children" and "One Life to Live."

Nixon wrote in her memoir that to distract herself from the painful news, she looked at the Lifetime Achievement Emmy statuette given to her in 1992. The base was inscribed: “Agnes Nixon introduced social relevance to Daytime, and at the same time changed traditional storytelling.”

Nixon suffered a stroke a year after the cancellations. While her body failed, Nixon’s son, Bob, a documentary film maker, says her mind was as sharp as ever.

“The shows may have been canceled, but all of those lives and characters were running through her head constantly,” he told ABC News. “Ag was determined to make the most of her time on Earth. She thought she had God-given gifts and worked tirelessly to benefit others. She always said life was like a brief candle.”

Lucci added: “She was an original. What I’m going to miss the most is being able to talk to her.”

It’s hard to believe so much scandal, impropriety and mischief came from a woman who attended mass regularly, lived a conservative life and was married only once for 45 years until her husband’s death in 1996. If Nixon thought life was simply a brief candle, her flame was one of the most illuminating of all.

Agnes Nixon’s memoir, "My Life to Live," is available now.

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