Born December 10, 1927, in Chicago, IL; daughter of Harry Joseph (a burial garments manufacturer) and Agnes Patricia (an insurance treasurer; maiden name,Dalton) Eckhardt; married Robert Henry Adolphus Nixon (an auto company executive), April 6, 1951; children: Catherine Agnes, Mary Frances, Robert Henry,Emily Anne. Addresses: HOMES--New York, NY, and Philadelphia, PA. OFFICE--c/o American Broadcasting Company, 1330 Avenue of the Americas, New York,NY 10019. AGENT--Louis Weiss, William Morris Agency, 1350 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019.
Agnes Eckhardt Nixon, creator of the soap operas Search for Tomorrow, One Life to Live, All My Children, and Loving, and contributor to several other serials, is recognized as a pioneer in introducing social relevance to daytime television. Topics such as the Vietnam war, abortion, drug addiction, child abuse, racism, and AIDS have been confronted in Nixon's story lines since the early 1960s, transforming the traditionally conservative and escapist nature ofdaytime serials into a forum for relaying socially pertinent messages. But Nixon stresses that the messages are conveyed "in an affirmative way, not a punitive way," as Rod Townley quoted her in TV Guide. "If you're punitive, thepeople you're trying to reach will just turn off the set.... Our primary mandate is to entertain, but I do think people are entertained by being made to think."
Nixon began her scriptwriting career three days after graduating from Northwestern University in the late 1940s. Hoping to discourage his daughter from choosing a career in writing, Nixon's father, Harry Eckhardt, secured for her an interview with Irna Phillips--"the querulous queen of soap opera," as Timemagazine described her--who created the radio serials Another World and The Guiding Light. After reading aloud one of Nixon's scripts, Phillips hired heron the spot to write dialogue for Women in White.
Nixon quickly matched Phillips's proficiency at scriptwriting, and in 1951 created her own television soap opera, Search for Tomorrow. Variety praised theserial's creator for her ability to "eschew ... the usual soap opera technique" and "endow [the show] with some fairly mature dramatic values." The writer married Bob Nixon that same year, and in the next five years she raised four children while writing scripts at home. At that time, Nixon told People magazine's Kristin McMurran, "People just couldn't believe that I could hold a job and be a really good mother." She added, "It wasn't easy, but it worked out."
In 1957 Nixon helped create As the World Turns and soon after she became headwriter for The Guiding Light, by then a television serial. It was while writing for this show that Nixon first attempted to incorporate timely and occasionally controversial topics into her scripts. After a friend died of cancer,Nixon proposed a plot emphasizing the early detection of uterine cancer through regular Pap tests. "The network was appalled," reported Leslie Bennetts inthe New York Times (January 26, 1988). "When Mrs. Nixon persisted, CBS saidshe could do it as long as she avoided such words as cancer, uterus, or hysterectomy." Nixon managed to meet the network's requirements and introduced thestory of Bert Bauer, a woman whose early checkup prevented her from succumbing to cancer. Explaining the importance of the story, Nixon wrote in the NewYork Times in 1968: "The women who would never have watched or heeded a Cancer Society program with its obvious public service appeal were, in effect, a captive audience for our message because Bert Bauer was to them like a sisteror a very old and dear friend."
In 1965 the prolific writer was hired by NBC to rescue the failing Another World and during her two years as head writer for the serial she introduced her"most memorable creation, Rachel," according to Time, "the bewitching homewrecker and one of the soaps' durably popular villainesses." After turning thatshow into a success, Nixon created One Life to Live for ABC in 1967. One Life to Live and All My Children, which Nixon created for ABC three years later,regularly incorporated real-life themes and have become Nixon's most popularand critically acclaimed daytime dramas.
Noting that soap operas are "torn between the need to keep up with changing realities and the desire to stick to tried-and-true formulas that have never expressed reality," Anthony Astrachan praised One Life to Live for its realismand for being "the most consistently innovative soap opera" (New York TimesMagazine, March 23, 1975). During its first year, the serial "evolved a majorplot line focusing on (rather than pointedly ignoring) race," commented BethGutcheon in Ms. In the story, a light-skinned black actress appeared as a woman assumed to be white, who, after becoming engaged to a white man, fell inlove with a black intern. When the character--whom the viewers still thoughtwas white--first kissed the intern, "every TV set below the Mason-Dixon linewent blank," Gutcheon declared, and the show was cancelled in Texas. "One Life to Live," further commented Astrachan, "also tries for a greater degree ofrealism in having an important set of characters who are both blue-collar andethnic."
Nixon received particular acclaim for her subplot concerning teenage drug addiction in One Life to Live during 1970. Integrated into the show were "five-minute doses of unrehearsed, spontaneous confrontation between real-life former dope addicts and the actress who plays Cathy Craig, 'One Life''s troubled teenager," wrote Beatrice Berg in the New York Times (August 2, 1970). Nixon arranged the improvised group therapy sessions with New York City's Odyssey House rehabilitation center in order to reach people who, according to Berg, "don't read The New York Times and won't look at documentaries about the drug problem because they don't want to be preached to." Gutcheon reported in Ms. that ABC and Odyssey House were swamped with calls" following the soap opera segments, and Berg ventured: "Maybe--just maybe--'One Life' will help some ofthose kids, and some of their parents."
All My Children, which gained a loyal followig among college students duringthe 1970s and boasts a thirty percent male audience, integrates such topics as abortion, child abuse, and anti-war sentiment into its more traditional romance plots. "Nixon likes to beef up the suds with high-protein filler," remarked Beth Gutcheon. "[She] drops in one-liners about pollution or zero population growth." In 1971 the show's villainess, Erica Kane, became the first television character to have a legal abortion. "The writers presumed that MiddleAmerica would be shocked," noted Astrachan, "and Erica was duly punished by getting septicemia from the abortion." Three years later the serial introduceda story line about child abuse. Commenting that she planned to follow the story, Gutcheon explained, "Maybe I'll find out why I sometimes feel like slugging my son. Maybe I'll find out why my mother slugged me."
Astrachan noted in 1975 that "Mrs. Nixon put the ultimate contemporary reality into 'All My Children' with three sequences related to Vietnam." One important subplot concerned peace activist Amy Tyler, a sympathetic character who was played, significantly, by Rosemary Prinz, "a soap-opera superstar," according to Stephanie Harrington in the New York Times (February 22, 1970). By casting the well-loved actress as the liberal anti-war character, Harrington explained, "Mrs. Nixon is probably opening the minds of a good number of 'my-country-right-or-wrong' ladies ... to the legitimacy, even respectability, of peace activism." Other subplots dealt with Amy's son's enlistment in the Army and the return home of a prisoner of war.
In 1981 Nixon briefly sidestepped the daytime television format to create a three-part mini-series, The Manions of America, for ABC. The prime-time historical romance chronicled the immigration of a nineteenth-century Irish familyto America. Based on stories told in Nixon's own Irish family and envisionedyears before it was produced, "The Manions was meant to be," Nixon declared in People. "I know it's good and true and real, whether or not it's a commercial success."
Because of Nixon's demonstrated proficiency in her field--"Nixon has had a successful serial on TV five days a week, every week, for the past 27 years," reported Time in 1983--ABC felt confident that year in allowing her to producethe network's first new soap opera in eight years. To please the many college students who began watching soap operas regularly during the 1970s, Nixon created the half-hour serial Loving, set on the fictional campus of Alden University. As Anthony Astrachan noted, "University interest ... is part of the evidence that soap opera has achieved a secure place in American culture."
And a primary reason for the success of modern soap opera, according to Astrachan, has been Nixon's introduction into the genre of "not only relevent issues but scenes and people from real life." Rod Townley concurred: "More than anyone else, Agnes Nixon has let reality into the claustrophobic sound studiosof soap opera." He added, "Other soap writers have begun to realize, throughMrs. Nixon's example, that social issues can have a leavening effect on ratings.... There are the makings of a trend here."