Agnes Nixon
Stories of sin and redemption
Image

I grew up in Nashville, Tenn., in an Irish-Catholic enclave, at a time when Catholics made up less than 1 percent of the population and the whole state was one diocese. I am the fourth generation of women in my family to go to the St. Cecilia Dominican Academy, started before the Civil War. I loved the nuns. They also taught in the parish school. Sister Jane Dominic, my second grade teacher, and I stayed friends until she died at 94.

My parents separated when I was just 3 months old. Our household included my mother and four maiden aunts, all of whom worked as bookkeepers. Later, when I married and had four children in five years, I was working already and simply continued to do so. Everybody says I blazed a trail as a wife, mother and working woman, but to me work was just what women did. My husband, Robert, was very supportive and helped a great deal. It was important to me to raise my children as Catholics, but not to force them, because that is the best way to lose them.

I wanted to become a writer. I studied writing first at St. Mary’s College in South Bend and then at Northwestern University. My father, whose business was the manufacture of burial garments, disapproved. “You’re not a writer,” he told me and insisted that I take over his business. To set me straight, he asked a friend to introduce me to a real writer, Irna Phillips, the woman who created the serial drama. I had just graduated, so I took along the one script I had written. Ms. Phillips read the whole thing aloud, then asked me to come work for her. A year later I moved to New York, where I had never been before, praying, “God, don’t dump me now.”

Television was really getting started, with such shows as The “Philco Television Playhouse,” “Playhouse 90,” “Robert Montgomery Presents” and the “Hallmark Hall of Fame.” I wrote for most of those nighttime shows.

After I married, Procter and Gamble asked me to write for a show they owned, “The Guiding Light.” A few years later, I took over as head writer from Irna Phillips.

Justice and Empathy

I worked hard to become a good writer. What interested me was justice. I tried to get the audience to sympathize even with the wrongdoer.

When I grew up in a racist South, it hurt me to see distinguished African-American people walk past me to stand in the back of the bus. That does something to a person. I was not sitting in that bus thinking, I am going to create a television show about the horrors of racism. But I wrote a sequence in “The Guiding Light” in which one of the main characters, an actress named Julie, was ill and became friends with her nurse, who was black. When Julie went home, I wrote the script so that the nurse went to visit her, not wearing her uniform, and knocked on the front door. The sponsor objected. “You should never have done that,” the sponsor said about the scene. “They don’t want it either.” “Who are they?” I asked, knowing whom they meant. After that episode ran, one Atlanta storekeeper took Proctor & Gamble products off the shelf.

To me racism was a vital story. I was not consciously listening to my faith; I just found racism shockingly unjust.

Later, I had a friend with uterine cancer. In memory of her, I wanted to promote the Pap smear test as a means of discovering and curing uterine cancer, but both the sponsor and the network said no. “Guiding Light,” they explained, “is an entertainment show. We have scheduled times for public service programs.” But those times were early Sunday morning when everyone was asleep or at church. So I showed them how the theme could be developed, and they said, “Okay, but don’t say cancer, don’t say uterus and don’t say hysterectomy.” I wrote scenes explaining how the doctor would tell the character she had cancer and so on. It was a success. A gynecologist told me he saw so many women he had not seen in years that he asked them, “What are you doing back in my office?” They said, “Well, I watch this soap opera….”

In 1967 I created my own show, “One Life to Live,” on ABC. I wanted to cover the social issues, and the network trusted me to do it in good taste. By 1968 there was the “black is beautiful” movement. On the show we ran the story of Carla Gray, a light-skinned African-American who passed as a white person. The point was to help the audience examine their prejudices. So for five months the viewers thought Carla was a white young actress engaged to a white doctor. As the months passed, Carla had to have an operation. While in the hospital, she fell in love with a black resident, which led to a kiss.

Then I got a letter from a man in Seattle, Wash., who said: I want to protest that black resident kissing that white girl. But I am getting confused. If she turns out to be black, I want to protest her kissing that white doctor.

I created “All My Children” in 1970. The Vietnam war was very controversial, so the network asked only one thing: to present a hawk’s viewpoint as well as a dove’s. I agreed. If you don’t have a hawk on, you are not being fair. And if the hawks turn the television off, you have no chance of getting a message across. My aim was to make people understand their opponents’ opinion.

That point was brought home to me years ago at a summer television seminar in Aspen, Colo. Saul Alinsky, one of the speakers, said, “When I sit down to negotiate with the heads of companies, I make sure not to bring out the baby pictures, because you say, ‘Here is my kid,’ and the guy sitting across says, ‘Here is a picture of mine,’ and you can’t negotiate anymore; you’ve become friends.” That hit home more than any direct religious teaching: You have to bring out the baby pictures before a hawk can ever understand a dove or vice versa.

A writer has to make the viewers empathize and say, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” I am fascinated by how people live, and I like to dramatize why people do the things they do, even the wrong things. What makes stories interesting is that people do the wrong things for the right reasons. They mean to do well, but people are fallible. Real life and drama overlap. My writing is about sin and redemption. On the social issues, whether the Vietnam War or abortion or racism, I never thought I could change the way most people felt. I just wanted to show the unfairness of it, the inequality, the injustice. When we ran a yearlong story about child abuse, the network persuaded affiliate stations to run a ribbon across the bottom of the screen, informing abusers where they could get help anonomously. The results were amazing: many people who watched it stopped mistreating their children.

For me the most important factor in serial writing is the ensemble effort of our creative family: writers, producers, directors and all the talented people behind the camera. We are a family. A sense of respect and camaraderie and sharing the responsibility, as well as the pleasures and benefits, is key. No one person can write an hourlong show 260 times a year.

Listen to an interview with Agnes Nixon and read more about her career.

Agnes Nixon, a television writer and producer, is the creator of “All My Children” and “One Life to Live.” In 2010 she won the Daytime Emmys Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television

Comments

ANN JOHNSON | 7/11/2011 - 3:45pm
I recall back in the '80s when one outpatient department at my workplace took their lunch period during "All My Children". One character contracted AIDS although since this was still only the '80s, she did not get it because she was gay or a drug addict. Maybe it was a blood transfusion. Anyway the script was written to show the outrage of townspeople, their fear of her, their desire to isolate her, mainly out of sheer ignorance as to what AIDS was all about.

So the writers set up a full hour's program that was ostensibly a town forum kind of panel - experts who really were medical experts mixed with actors in the show to "teach" the townspeople all about AIDS. I remember thinking at the time that probably more people learned the facts on AIDS from that one show along than from all those public service and news programs that fewer people watched.

Ms. Nixon was also a pioneer in writing about drug addiction and spousal violence in her programs. She has written shows that have entertained and educated millions so let no one scoff that she's "just a soap opera writer".