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The Mother of All Soaps : The Nicest Person in Daytime TV Has Made a Fortune With Never-Ending Tales of Alcoholism, Adultery, Child Abuse and Disease

August 25, 1991|Linda Grant | Linda Grant is a contributing editor to this magazine. Her last article was on Delta Air Lines.

TITTERS OF EXCITEMENT RUN THROUGH the auditorium of the Chicago Museum of Broadcast Communications as a fragile-looking 63-year-old woman steps daintily onto the stage. Agnes Nixon, the premier storyteller of daytime television, has created and written soap operas that have aired five days a week, 52 weeks a year, for more than 30 years--a remarkable show of endurance in a medium notorious for burnout.

She accepts with poise the sustained applause from a standing-room-only crowd. It has assembled to honor her at the kickoff of a 60-year retrospective entitled "A Summer of Soaps." The smile Nixon beams at fans is that of the actress she trained to be rather than that of the writer she is, and it just barely betrays her nervousness and shyness.

"Soap operas have come of age," Nixon tells the rapt group. "Today men as well as women are involved in watching them, people from the ages of 8 to 80. We are more sophisticated than ever before. We inform as well as entertain."

The petite Nixon is the creative powerhouse who originated such daytime hits as "One Life to Live," "Loving" and one of the most popular and profitable soaps ever--ABC's "All My Children." In the process, she reshaped a genre long mocked as chewing gum for the vapid minds of dull housewives. Says soap fan Robert C. Allen, associate professor of radio, TV and motion pictures at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: "It's hard to think of a more despised and scorned art form, except maybe pornography."

Due largely to Nixon's talent, the soaps' tarnished image has brightened in recent years--the satire in this summer's film "Soapdish" notwithstanding. Says Brian Rose, an associate professor of media studies at Fordham University: "Soaps have become the hottest thing in academic TV study. "Agnes Nixon is instrumental in bringing soaps respectability. She added a whole new approach, which was at once serious and at the same time committed and humane." He refers to her innovation of weaving timely issues such as alcoholism, child abuse, AIDS and interracial romance into her melodramatic plots and of having characters cope with these themes realistically.

For this pioneering effort, she was awarded the industry's highest honor in 1981: the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences' Trustee Award, which cited her "distinguished service to television and the public." Nixon is the first woman whose name is inscribed on the award, a distinction that places her with an elite that includes Edward R. Murrow, William S. Paley, David Sarnoff and Bob Hope.

Nixon's yarns of tragedy and triumph, love and hate, sin and redemption also have won her a place among the wealthiest working women in America. She earns more than $1 million annually as an exclusive consultant to daytime programming at Capital Cities/ABC Inc. and as head writer of "All My Children." Her perks include an ABC car and driver to chauffeur her between her New York City apartment, where she lives Mondays through Thursdays, and Pine Cottage, her three-acre, 20-room pre-Revolutionary home in Rosemont on the Philadelphia Main Line. She works there in a third-floor study with a secretary on Fridays, then spends weekends with her husband, Robert, who manages her business and races Thoroughbred horses. A laconic former auto executive, Robert Nixon observes, "Agnes and I have always been sort of in double harness."

Although Nixon is gratified by her success, she is not really surprised that soaps have at last achieved a small measure of critical acceptance. "I think soap operas are the form of entertainment closest to real life," she says. "Everyone's life is a soap opera. Some are more interesting than others, and of course there are no new stories. But everyone's life is a journey. Each time something dramatic happens for the first time, in a way, the story is new because it's never happened to that person before."

THAT NIXON, AN EXQUISITELY LADY-like woman of Irish and Southern heritage, has triumphed in an industry famous for devouring writers and turning female executives into unholy viragoes, is an anomaly. That she creates the tempestuous characters who kick up so much emotional dust seems improbable, because longtime colleagues report that Nixon never raises her voice in anger. Her manners are impeccable and, by her own admission, she shies away from confrontation. A devout Catholic, she has been married for 40 years and is intensely involved with her four grown children and six grandchildren.

Nixon mesmerizes viewers by homing in on the emotional ups and downs that send shock waves through every life: love and hate, infidelity, the joys and pains of raising children, jealousy, fear, greed, malice, heroism, unselfishness. Despite her serene, even prim, demeanor, aspects of her life have allowed her a visceral understanding of the tales she spins.

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