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Remembering Agnes Nixon: 'Queen of Soaps'

1944 graduate changed the face of daytime television

Agnes Nixon

Northwestern School of Communication alumna Agnes Eckhardt Nixon, “Queen of the Modern Day Soap Opera” and best known as the creator of “All My Children” and “One Life to Live,” died Wednesday, Sept. 28. She was 93.

“Agnes Nixon was a protean figure in television, creating several of the longest-running and most successful daytime dramas,” School of Communication Dean Barbara O’Keefe said. “I feel very fortunate to have known her — I admired her both as a woman who became a successful leader in the entertainment industry and as a lovable, kind and generous alumna.”

Nixon, a 1944 Northwestern graduate, broke new ground in TV in the 1960s and 1970’s, when she began to write socially relevant scripts for “One Life to Live” and “All My Children” that dealt with such issues as interracial relationships, abortion, drug addiction, the Vietnam War, domestic violence and, later, AIDs.

“The playwriting prize she established at Northwestern has been extremely important,” O’Keefe said. “It has provided early recognition and support to decades of aspiring writers, among them John Logan, Lydia Diamond and Laura Eason.”

Northwestern’s Agnes Nixon Playwriting Festival is a two-day annual event that features staged on-campus readings of new works by three exemplary, hand-picked students. It is preceded by a quarter-long class in which the students workshop original plays that they write, cast and stage themselves ahead of the readings.

Northwestern will commemorate Nixon’s life this spring, during the festival.

A Chicago native, Nixon began her career in daytime serial drama three days after graduating from Northwestern, when she was hired by legendary soap opera genre creator Irna Phillips as a radio scriptwriter in 1944.

She later wrote for “As the World Turns” (as co-creator with Irna Phillips), “The Guiding Light” (as head writer) and “Another World” (head writer). “One Life to Live” and “All My Children” premiered on ABC, in 1968 and 1970 respectively.

She was recognized throughout her career for elevating soap operas. When Nixon received the Daytime Emmy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2010, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences said she “totally changed the traditionally escapist nature of daytime serials while straining to make the world a better place,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

In 2010, Nixon also received the Los Angeles-based Peace Over Violence center’s award on behalf of her show “All My Children” for its 40-plus years of progressive storylines and advocacy on social issues related to domestic and sexual violence.

The lifetime achievement Emmy (pictured) is among the Nixon collection housed in University Archives at Northwestern.

“I had two days in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, with her [Agnes Nixon] looking at her papers, and it was the best trip I every made, because she was so overwhelmingly kind, gentle and interesting. We really hit it off,” University Archivist Kevin Leonard said.

Leonard was successful in getting the Nixon papers housed at Northwestern. They document the 60-year career of the Northwestern alumna, radio and television writer and soap-opera innovator, with biographical materials, correspondence, press clippings, advertisements, awards, photographs, written-work artifacts and audiovisual materials. The written work from Nixon’s years at Northwestern includes the radio play “No Flags Flying.”

At Northwestern, Nixon aspired to be an actress. But fierce competition at a University whose faculty, students and alumni are renowned for their virtuosity in the arts made her think twice.

On campus to receive an alumni Merit Award in 2014, Nixon said, “I was at Northwestern at the same time as Charlton Heston, Patricia Neal, Jeanne Verhagen and Cloris Leachman. Wouldn’t you say that competition rather reaffirmed my decision to be a writer?”

Nixon is survived by her four children, Cathy, Mary, Robert and Emily, and 11 grandchildren.

Top photo: Northwestern theatre production of "Is Life Worth Living," staged in May 1944. Agnes Nixon (then Agnes Eckhardt) had the lead role. Courtesy of University Archives.

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