Agnes Nixon, who died at the age of 93 Wednesday, was at once a TV institution and TV change agent. Fifty years ago, the so-called queen of soaps launched a pair of shows — “One Life to Live” and “All My Children” — that dragged the soap industry straight from the 1950s squarely into the heat and tumult of the late 20th century. On “One Life,” she effectively helped breach a color barrier that had been in place since the genre’s beginnings, by bringing Ellen Holly to the show in 1968. Holly was to become a soap series’ first full-time black cast member — as Carla Gray, a role she held for more than 16 years.
In Susan Lucci, Nixon launched soaps’ most incandescent career, and in Lucci’s Erica Kane, found the character through which she refracted so much of what she wanted to say as a writer — much of it revolutionary for the time. It was also remarkable considering that soaps were largely controlled by one of the most conservative corporations in America, Procter & Gamble.
Like her counterpart in primetime, Norman Lear, Nixon sought to break taboos — both a culture’s and an industry’s — and sought to bring them within the confines of a genre so calcified that even its characters could scarcely whisper them out loud: Abortion . . . Vietnam . . . drug addiction . . . alcohol abuse . . . race relations. On “AMC,” she introduced soaps’ first openly gay character — Eden Riegel’s Bianca Montgomery, who came out to her mother (Erica Kane) in 2000. The soaps’ first same-sex kiss between lesbian characters (Bianca and Lena Kundera, played by Olga Sosnovska) arrived three years later.
In 1973, Erica Kane had an abortion — TV’s first so-called “legal” one since the Roe v. Wade ruling earlier that year. (Maude Findlay had had an abortion on “Maude” in 1972 — the first instance in primetime).
Nixon gave soaps a measure of respectability and relevance. “OLTL” (which ended in 2012) and especially “AMC” (which ended in 2011) dominated daytime TV for decades. For a time, they were often among the most successful shows on ABC’s entire lineup.
I spoke earlier Thursday with both Holly — now 85, living in Westchester County — and with Garden City’s Lucci, 69, who joined “AMC” at launch in 1970 when she was only 19 (to play a 15-year-old). Holly had a bitter falling out with both Nixon and “One Life to Live” over pay inequality (which she has written and spoken about in the past). She confined her comments only to a statement which read, in part: “Corporations choose to be opaque rather than transparent. It took nineteen years for Lilly Ledbetter — for whom the Fair Pay Act of 2009 was named — to find out how profoundly she had been cheated by Goodyear Tire. It took me a lot longer to find out how profoundly I had been cheated.”
In an interview, Lucci called Nixon “a wonderful, compassionate, thoughtful, bright, hardworking, ethical woman. I adored her.
“She wanted to hold a mirror up to our culture and in (Erica Kane’s) case, that involved an abortion and drug addiction, which played out over a couple of years. . . . When Eden Riegel came out, and as that story played out over two years, it had a huge impact on the gay and lesbian community. They were important stories to tell and important conversations we had with the audience. I was proud to be a part of those.”
Lucci said Nixon brought humor and real-world relationships to soaps — often both together. “My first audition was for a 15-year-old Erica with her mother, who told me to get ready for the math tutor but I was trying to put on lipstick, saying ‘Boys don’t care about math.’ Then we had a knock-down drag-out. Usually daughters were reverential to their mothers [on soaps] — a Hallmark card relationship. But this one was supposed to be a reflection of real life, which audiences had never seen before.”
Nixon brought the subject of race to soaps — delicately at first. As Holly later wrote (in a guest op-ed in The New York Times), “the part was a black girl who passes for white” — and who would only later be revealed as black to the other characters.
Holly, a seasoned stage actress by the time she joined the new soap in 1968, admitted that she was at first ambivalent about a tangled storyline involving race and identity. But, she added, “I found the idea fascinating. I felt that the unique format of a soap would enable people to examine their prejudices in a way no other format possibly could . . . the soap audience would relate to her as white for months, months in which she would become part of their daily lives, for some virtually a member of their families. The emotional investment they made in her as a human being would be infinitely greater, and when the switch came (the reveal when the other characters on the show found out she was black) their involvement would be real rather than superficial . . . It seemed like a marvelous opportunity for them to confront their own prejudices.”
Nixon decided to try something else instead — an attempt at TV’s first interracial romance, between Carla, a secretary, and her white boss. A Texas station canceled the series, and others threatened to drop it as well. Holly’s character later ended up marrying a black police lieutenant, Ed Hall (played by Al Freeman Jr.).
For the rest of Holly’s run on the series, the Halls were the only black family in Llanview, the fictional Philadelphia suburb where “OLTL” was set.
Integration came slowly and fitfully to daytime soaps. At least thanks in part to Nixon, it had finally begun.