Agnes Nixon died yesterday. For those of you who don’t know who she was, she created the long-running soaps One Life to Live and All My Children, among others, and worked on numerous others as well. She created two of the greatest female characters in television history–Victoria Lord on One Life to Live and Erica Kane on All My Children, both of whom made daytime legends of the actresses who played them, Erika Slezak and Susan Lucci.
I loved soaps, and it wasn’t until the late 1990’s that I stopped watching them because i needed the time to write. When I was a kid, both of my parents worked so during the summers a lady down the street watched my sister and I during the day–and she was an avid fan of General Hospital, One Life to Live, and Dark Shadows. My grandmother also worked the evening shift at American Can Company back then, and so she also watched the shows, so on days when she watched us we watched them all together. It was hard sometimes catching up, since we weren’t able to watch them during the school year (other than Dark Shadows, which we could run home from school to catch the last twenty minutes or so of), but watch them we did…and when All My Children debuted, we started watching that one because it was new–we could know everything from the very beginning. The thing that was amazing about All My Children as well, was that it had young characters featured front and center; the romantic lives of teenagers was just as important as that of its older characters. Tara, Phil, Chuck and Erica were all high school students when the show started, and there was something else odd about the adults in Pine Valley, as well. They didn’t just sit around and talk about what was going on with their lives, they also talked about the Vietnam War, protests, and opposing it. The show was actually relevant; while other soaps were insular, where nothing mattered except what was going on in the town as though the rest of the world didn’t exist, the people in Pine Valley were very aware. And both Phil and Chuck–and their families–worried they’d be drafted when they got out of high school.
Phil eventually did wind up going to Vietnam, and was reported dead there.
The show was incredibly popular with young people–all of my friends watched it, and as the years passed, the show continued its commitment to young love. Pine Valley also had something else that most other soaps didn’t have–people of color. In the early 1980’s, there were two parallel star-crossed love stories featuring teens–Greg and Jenny, who were white, and Jesse and Angie, who were black. Both stories got equal air time, were equally important, and the young actors were incredibly compelling. There was also a teen villainess, Liza Colby, played by Marcy Walker, who was also fantastic.
Greg and Jenny:
Angie and Jesse:
The despicable Liza:
Kim Delaney, who would go on to prime time success, left the show shortly after she and Greg were finally, after years of heartbreak, obstacles, and separation, married; the show decided not to recast but to kill her off.
It was devastating.
In college, everyone would gather around television sets in the lounges to watch All My Children ; when Jenny flatlined I remember everyone in the lounge gasped in disbelief; some people actually started crying. Years later, I mentioned to a friend “if someone ever tells you they used to watch All My Children , and you ask them when they stopped watching, they will tell you they stopped watching when Jenny died.”
The show did eventually recover from killing off Jenny, but it took a while.
Over the years, the show created incredible characters played by exceptional actors; Sarah Michelle Gellar’s big break came as Kendall on the show; a young actress who not only could hold her own against Susan Lucci but was a villainess you also felt compassion for. She played Kendall, the daughter no one knew Erica had; the product of a rape when she was thirteen that she gave away, and Kendall turned up as a teenager. The scenes between Erica and Kendall, when Erica tried to explain why she could never love her because she would always see Kendall and remember the rape, were incredibly powerful; Sarah Michelle Gellar would win an Emmy for those scenes, and I never understood why Lucci did not. (Lucci, of course, was nominated a billion times and only won once; it became a running joke for Lucci–the irony being she became much more famous for not winning than any of the women who won did; and when she did finally win, it was national news and she was on every magazine cover on the newsstands.)
Kelly Ripa also got her big break on All My Children , as Adam Chandler’s illegitimate daughter Haley.
One of the other things that made the show special was it wasn’t afraid to be funny; it was more than just unrelenting melodrama and sobbing. One moment your heart would be breaking over Donna’s grief over her child dying in a fire and the next you’d be laughing at the antics of Opal Gardner. All My Children never was afraid to be funny. (One of the greatest characters on the show was villainess Janet–“Janet from another planet”–who did horrible things but at the same time was incredibly funny.)
And of course, there was Erica Kane. You can’t talk about All My Children without talking about Erica. When asked once if she would ever leave the show, Susan Lucci replied, “Why would I? Where else would I get to play Scarlett O’Hara every day?” Erica started out as a bitch on the show–a young teen villainess– but in the skillful hands of the perfect actress for the part and a talented writer who showed the character in all of her confusing complexity, Erica became the center of the show, and was always the star. Erica wanted to be loved, but she also wanted to be rich and famous and successful–and didn’t want to get all of those things by marrying a rich man; she wanted to get them herself. And that drive, Erica’s drive, I think, was what made her such a beloved character. She did things the wrong way, she lied and manipulated, but the disaster that was her personal life never stopped her from getting all the things out of life that she wanted–and when her deceptions once again destroyed her personal life, she always wiped away the tears and repeated her mantra: “I can do anything. I’m Erica Kane.”
And of course, Erica had daytime’s first (and one of the few) abortions.
The show always dealt, like it did with abortion and Vietnam, social issues. It had daytime’s first lesbian character, dealt with HIV/AIDS, had a gay character and addressed homophobia, and of course, Erica’s daughter Bianca became daytime’s first main character to be a lesbian…and to have as troubled, dramatic, and fascinating love life as any of the straight characters.
I could probably write an entire book about All My Children . I learned a lot from the show, about writing, how to plot a murder mystery (the show had some of the best murder mysteries on daytime), and how to create a complicated character.
RIP, Ms. Nixon. I’ll talk about One Life to Live tomorrow.