Thursday, May 6, 2010

Helen Wagner


Wagner's death last weekend at the age of 91 brings an end to the era of the Moral Matriarch of the Daytime Soap. (I just invented that name, but did not invent the phenomenon.)

Born in Lubbock, TX, Wagner was performing some summer stock in St. Louis when Oscar Hammerstein saw her, and advised her to move to New York. She had a small role in the original production of Oklahoma for a time, but actually did not spend much of her career on the stage. She was with Guiding Light when that radio soap made the transition to television in 1952, but left soon afterward. In 1956, she was cast in the role of a lifetime, and that's no exaggeration; she spent the rest of her life (over 50 years) playing matriarch Nancy Hughes on As The World Turns.
She described her character as a "tentpole" role, someone around whom the rest of the drama swirled. I wrote a bit about this type of character a while ago, when Frances Reid, who played a corresponding role on Days of Our Lives, died. Wagner's character on ATWT was never confronted with long lost children, evil twins, or kidnapping plots. Instead, her function was to provide a moral sounding board to the other, more dramatically interesting characters on the show.
Helen is in the Guinness Book of World Records as having played a single character on television the longest time. She uttered the very first words on ATWT ("Good morning, dear") when the show debuted on April 2, 1956, and played the role more or less continuously until her death. She took two breaks from the show, one voluntarily, and one not. About six months into the show's run, creator Irna Phillips fired our Helen, but after several months, rehired her when no one else could be found who could pour coffee on camera quite so lovingly. In the mid 80s, Helen walked away from the show to protest the producers' insistence that the senior members of the ensemble be pushed aside to make way for younger blood. She was back with the show a year or so later, in time to celebrate the show's 30th anniversary on the air.

Wagner got the chance to stretch her chops upon her return, when the show teamed her with an aging police detective (the actor who had played Helen's husband on the show had died, so of course, his character died too. Roles such as Nancy Hughes do not go through multiple marriages as other soap characters do; if they marry more than once, it is because they have been widowed). The writers gave Wagner's new husband Alzheimer's, a first in daytime, and the plotline played out over a two year period (at the time, ATWT had a reputation for moving at a glacial pace). They finally killed the guy off, and Wagner's character remained a widow until her death last week.

If you've never seen a daytime soap in your life, it is likely you have still seen a snippet of Helen Wagner's performance as Nancy Hughes. A clip of one of her scenes is enshrined in the Museum of Television Arts, and in other museums of note, as it was her program which was interrupted by Walter Cronkite on November 22, 1963.

CBS was the only network broadcasting nationally at that particular moment, both NBC and ABC having given the early afternoon hours to their affiliates to program locally. Whenever you see that very famous clip of Cronkite interrupting "regularly scheduled programming" to announce the assassination of John F. Kennedy, it is As The World Turns which is being interrupted, and that is Helen Wagner onscreen at the time. She later reported that the show, which was performed live in those days, continued without the actors being informed of the drama unfolding in Dallas.

Wagner's screen time diminished dramatically as she aged; she appeared only sporadically in recent years. In 2004, along with other long-time players in daytime, she was presented a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Television Academy (she never won nor was nominated for the Emmy). Her most recent (and now final) appearance on the show was April 5 of this year.

There is no doubt ATWT will address Wagner's death at some point before going off the air in September (it was announced several months ago that the show has been cancelled). It would have been a nice touch to have her Nancy Hughes utter the final lines of the series, bringing the 54 year-old show full circle, but Helen Wagner's death last week will make that symmetry impossible.