For the third time this year, a soap opera icon has died. First the loss of Francis Reid (Alice, Days of our Lives), then James Mitchell (Palmer, All My Children), and now Helen Wagner. As Nancy Hughes on As the World Turns, she has been credited by the Guinness Book of World Records as playing one character longer than any other actor. Over the years, I had the pleasure of talking to Wagner on many occasions. Just like the character she played so well for over 50 years, Wagner was forthright and forthcoming.
Her relationship with ATWT creator Irna Phillips was prickly at best. "I almost lost my job after six months. Irna did not think the actors existed out of their character. One day she was on the set when Nancy was doing another coffee-pouring scene. Nancy did a lot of those. Anyway, Irna did not like the way I was pouring the coffee. She went to the producers. They asked her to give me a chance to learn how to pour the coffee the way Irna wanted it poured," she recalled. "Honestly I kept pouring the coffee the same way. Irna must have seen something different, so I kept the job. I learned a very important lesson from the incident. Irna was always watching everything."
Wagner recalled a Doug Marland story. "Doug was an actor on our show years before he became our head writer. He was always generous to us. Although he stayed on top of things. If he thought a character was wearing an outfit that did not fit the character, he would call," she remembered. "One day Doug made the mistake of telling Irna that a scene was like mixing apples and oranges. They did not fit together. Irna spent days looking for a way to prove him wrong. She found a tablecloth with apples and oranges on it. In a scene, his character had to say something about 'apples and oranges' mixing."
Wagner was very aware that Nancy was not a character that things happened to. "Nancy's problems always centered around her family. If her children were happy. And those days were few, she was happy."
Wagner cringed when she thought of all the unwanted advice Nancy gave everyone. "I never give anyone advice unless they ask me. And why would they?'
Wagner's casemates remember it a bit differently. "She loved to give notes," according to Colleen Zenk_Pinter (Barbara). "From the moment I met her, Helen would give me acting notes. I loved them. She was right so much of the time."
On her recent visit to ATWT, Julianne Moore, who played Nancy's granddaughter, Frannie, still got notes. "I went right over to Helen. I was so thrilled to see her. Then she asked me if I had tried to do the scene this way."
Wagner's first scene on ATWT was on April 1956. The line was "Good morning, dear." She was saying it to Don McLaughlin, who played her husband, Chris, until his death in 1986. "Don and I just fit. We had a similar background. Don was all about making the scene work."
In the early 1980s, Wagner and McLaughlin told the press they were unhappy with their lack of storyline. "We were used to being tent pole characters. Everything happened around them. Not to them. Even that went away." The couple was written out. ATWT producers realized that the world could not turn without Nancy and Chris, so they were brought back. After McLaughlin's death, Nancy became a widow. "I loved the story where Nancy found someone else to love. I loved working with Dan Frazer, who played my new husband." That marriage was not to last. "Everyone was talking about Alzheimer's disease at the time. So they had my television husband diagnosed with Alzheimer's and then he died."
Nancy did not get to wear fancy clothes. "In the beginning, the story revolved around the Lowell family and the Hughes family. The Lowells were rich. Actors who were in that family wore nice clothing. The Hugheses were comfortable but did not spend money on clothes."
Wagner recalls the early days when actors were given a limited budget for clothes. "One day, Orbach's, a well-known dress store in New York, began to provide us clothing. Then we had a costume department. We all got clothes. Although Nancy never did get to wear the kind of party dress I would wear. Kathryn Hayes, who plays my daughter-in-law, gets great clothes. That was because her character was once a nightclub singer. Of course, Eileen Fulton, Lisa, always got to wear diamonds and furs. Nancy would make fun of Lisa about being overdressed... I wanted to wear them."
In real life, Wagner was married to Robert Wiley for over fifty years. A producer and her manager, Wiley died last year. Asked what she would have done if she had an interfering mother-in-law like Nancy, she said, "Oh, my dear, I did."
In the past few years, Wagner was seen less and less on ATWT. Her last on-air appearance occurred in April for the 25th wedding anniversary of son Bob and daughter-in-law Kim. A month later, Wagner was dead at 91. When last we talked, Wagner was sad that Nancy had so little air time since a 2004 storyline. "I love acting. I really hope I am doing it until the day I die." She came close.