October 05, 1981 12:00 PM

Once upon a time there was a little girl named Aggie Eckhardt whose address was Nashville but who lived more vividly in a world of fantasies. Her parents were separated, and her mother worked as a bookkeeper, so Aggie stayed home with Katie Ryan Dalton, her grandmother, and thrilled to tales of her bold Irish ancestors. Sometimes she made up stories herself—about Tillie the Toiler and Etta Kett, comic-strip cutouts that lived not in doll-houses but pressed between the pages of a well-thumbed phone book. As Aggie grew older she treasured the novels of Louisa May Alcott, followed Little Orphan Annie on the radio and dreamed of one day being discovered.

And so she was. Though the name Agnes Nixon may mean little or nothing to the estimated 20 million devotees of TV’s daytime serials, her genius as a cliff-hanging storyteller has figured in the success of no fewer than six soap operas on all three networks. In addition to creating All My Children, One Life to Live and Search for Tomorrow, she co-created As the World Turns and was a head writer on The Guiding Light and Another World. Now, after a quarter century of love in the afternoon, Nixon, 53, goes prime time this week with The Manions of America, a three-night ABC miniseries tracing the passage of an impoverished 19th-century Irish family from Old World to New. Nixon conceived it a decade ago to dramatize the stories that enthralled her in childhood. “The Manions was meant to be,” she says. “I know it’s good and true and real, whether or not it’s a commercial success.”

Based on her record, it’s hard to imagine The Manions as anything less than a success. Whatever Nixon has wrought in the past, Nielsen families have dutifully and enthusiastically ratified. “I tell stories that I like and that I believe can really happen,” she says. “Soaps are the form of entertainment that most nearly mimics life. Nighttime TV is terrific, but you know the Fonz is never going to change. In daytime we can deal with characters in depth and let them metamorphose as they do in reality.” Of course, Nixon adds, “We try to make it as intense and suspenseful as possible. I don’t want to be bored, because I’m sitting at home eating my leftovers and watching, just like millions of others.”

In the interest of conquering boredom, Nixon has never hesitated to break new ground on the soaps. She is regarded as a pioneer in bringing social consciousness to daytime TV. Amid tawdry plots of seduction (Will Erica snare Brandon?) and murder (Who shot Sybil?), Nixon has threaded topical story lines on child and wife abuse, Vietnam veterans and MIA families, teenage prostitution, cancer and drugs. Her sources of inspiration are diverse: talk shows, best-sellers, cocktail party chatter and, not infrequently, personal experience. When her son, Bobby, briefly suffered from a rare nerve disorder, Agnes incorporated the illness into a Guiding Light script. When a friend died of cancer, she wrote a subplot in which a woman’s life was saved by an early checkup.

“The name of entertainment is escape,” she observes, “but we’ve proved that soaps can do good things as well as entertain. It’s a soft sell, but we get messages across.” And sometimes she gets messages back. In 1968 Nixon devised a plot on One Life to Live in which a black actress, passing for white, became engaged to a white doctor, then fell in love with a black intern. When the actress, played by Ellen Holly, kissed the intern, a station in Texas canceled the show. Despite the ensuing furor, ABC allowed the story line to continue.

“I grew up in an extended family—there were three generations—and I like the feeling,” says Nixon. The characters of All My Children, the only soap with which she is currently associated, are like part of her family, and some share the traits of Agnes’ own relatives. The model for kindly Grandma Kate Martin (Kay Campbell) ought to be obvious. As for frosty autocrat Palmer Cortlandt (James Mitchell), he reminds Nixon of her late father, she says, because he “doesn’t know how to love.” Adds Agnes, “When I was 3 months old, my parents separated and I didn’t have a good relationship with my father. I learned much later that he had never had a good relationship with his parents. He was very unhappy, but he wasn’t a bad man.”

Much the same, she believes, can be said of All My Children’s bitchy, beautiful Erica Kane—so convincingly played by Susan Lucci that once, when the actress left the confessional at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a woman approached and muttered, “I hope you told him everything you’ve done.” Surprisingly, Nixon can empathize with the shallow, misguided Erica. “I understand her because she grew up in a broken home without a father,” Agnes explains. “She doesn’t have a great sense of personal worth—and if you can’t love yourself, you can’t love someone else. Sometimes I think, there but for the grace of God go I.”

In reality, of course, Nixon is not Erica and her father was not Palmer Cortlandt. After high school in Nashville, Agnes and Harry Eckhardt were reunited in Chicago, where he manufactured burial garments. He paid her way through Northwestern, where she studied drama but soon found she preferred writing to performing. When Agnes graduated in 1947, her father, who wanted her to join his company, tried to end her dreams of a writing career by arranging an interview with Irna Phillips, the imperious Chicago-based creator of radio soap operas, including The Guiding Light and Road of Life. “I was trembling in my boots,” Agnes recalls. “I brought a script I had written and she read it aloud. I was waiting for her to say, ‘This is a piece of you-know-what,’ but she looked up and asked, ‘How would you like to work for me?’ When I told my father, he said ‘You’re lying.’ I knew I had to make it as a writer to avoid the burial garment business.”

If Phillips was the queen of soaps, Nixon, a $100-a-week dialogue writer for the daytime serial Woman in White, quickly became her heir apparent. “Irna taught me that real life is more hilarious, more tragic and more incredible than anything we could think up,” says Agnes. “Look at the Jean Harris trial.” With the birth of network television, many of the radio soaps—and Phillips—moved their base of operations to Hollywood. But Nixon headed for New York, where the brief Golden Age of live drama on prime time had begun. Soon she was canvassing the networks, searching for work in a mostly male industry. “I remember wearing this powder-blue wool suit and a powder-blue hat with a feather,” she giggles. “I thought it was heaven until two friends called me ‘Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.’ I think a lot of men interviewed me just because they didn’t believe it.” Before long, she began writing scripts and adaptations for shows like Studio One and Robert Montgomery Presents.

Those first months in Manhattan were lonely. “I would stand in the backyard of my basement apartment and listen to the lilt of laughter and the tinkle of glasses behind the fence,” she recalls. “It seemed like the whole glamorous world was on the other side and I was the child whose face was pressed against the candy store window.” Then, in 1951, she met Bob Nixon, a Washington, D.C. auto dealer. “When Bob proposed,” she remembers, “he said, ‘I understand that writing is part of you and I wouldn’t want to change it.’ So I said ‘Yes’ before he changed his mind.”

Within the next five years she built both her career and a family—a son and three daughters, now ages 24 to 29. The Nixons finally settled near Philadelphia. Bob was a regional director for Chrysler and Agnes commuted to Manhattan three days a month. She recalls going to New York swathed in a voluminous cape, hoping that no one would notice she was pregnant. But they did notice. “People just couldn’t believe that I could hold a job and be a really good mother,” she says. “Once we had a pediatrician who said my children seemed accident-prone. Maybe I was being paranoid, but I thought he was saying I was responsible. At first I felt I had to defend myself, but then I thought, Why? Bob wasn’t objecting—he helped change the diapers and heat the bottles. It wasn’t easy, but it worked out.”

In 1954 Nixon reunited with Irna Phillips to write dialogue for The Guiding Light, which had made the transition from radio to TV. Later, under her tutelage, NBC’s Another World was transformed from a ratings bomb to a hit, and ABC agreed to let Agnes develop a soap of her own. One Life to Live went on the air in 1968, and All My Children in 1970. Bob cashed in his Chrysler dealership to join Agnes in their own production company, Creative Horizons, Inc. Subsequently, both shows were sold to ABC, and Nixon was put under a six-figure contract to supervise virtually every aspect of All My Children.

Despite a veteran staff, the job is a staggering one. “We have no summer reruns, like nighttime,” she explains. “We’re under pressure to produce 260 hour-long segments a year.”

Gestation begins in Nixon’s seven-bedroom pre-Revolutionary War home. (She and her husband own another house on St. Croix and an apartment in Manhattan.) On a typical morning Agnes swims 60 laps in the backyard pool before nestling into an easy chair in her top-floor, garretlike studio. “Each time I start a long story I think, ‘This time it won’t come,’ ” she says. “I’m like a little girl holding her grandfather’s hand.” Realistically, Nixon lists her characters’ names, then sets about clearing her mind. “It sounds silly,” she admits, “but it’s almost like a mystical experience. I hear these people talking to me, and I dictate what I hear.” At 1:00 p.m. she breaks from her recorder to watch All My Children, while simultaneously taping the competition, NBC’s Days of Our Lives and CBS’s The Young and the Restless. Though she is frequently on the phone to New York, where the serial is taped, Agnes works on long-range outlines alone; typically, she spends six days each month in the city collaborating with the show’s head writer, Wisner Washam, and its producer, Jorn Winther. Rarely does she visit the set. “It’s hard for me to see the stars in hair rollers going through rehearsals,” she explains. “I don’t want the edge taken off.”

In an industry that inflates egos to monstrous proportions, Nixon has retained more than the customary quotient of sanity. “Dirty dealing in this business stems from insecurity and panic,” she says. “I had a husband who was making a good living, so I didn’t have to panic. And I was loved. That gave me the assurance that freed me to be creative.” As for the peculiar genius that has produced one enduring serial after another, Agnes is inclined to be modest. “I’ll take credit for a lot of self-discipline and hard work,” she says, “but the rest is a gift that comes from somewhere else. Years ago I went to a number of psychics because I have a strong belief in life after death. One of them told me, ‘My dear, don’t take too much credit, because there is an Irish ancestor on the other side directing you.’ Now I don’t say, ‘Okay, ancestor, what are we writing today?’ But it is a comfort to me.”

After 25 years of soaps, and the financial security her tenure has purchased, Nixon’s attention may finally be wandering. If The Manions has the impact she hopes for, she would like to let the historical saga continue to the present—but as a periodic, not weekly, series. Last summer Agnes did not renew her ABC contract and is supervising All My Children on a month-to-month basis. Could she ever give up daytime serials entirely? “I think so,” she says. “I might even enjoy it.” Given such ambivalence, should ABC be saying its prayers? “I love the people at ABC,” she says sweetly, “but it is a business, and I don’t think I’m indispensable.”

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