Being a Soap Opera Star
Everything I could ever tell you about…
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NAME: Helen Wagner | AGE: 87 | HOMETOWN: Lubbock | QUALIFICATIONS: Has played housewife Nancy Hughes McClosky for fifty years on the daytime soap As the World Turns—the show’s only original cast member / Received the Daytime Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004
• I worked on the stage in New York for fifteen years—I was the understudy for Aunt Ella and played Kate in the original production of Oklahoma!—before doing television. I didn’t go to New York to become a television star. I decided to try it so that I could keep working as an actress.
• When I was offered the role of Nancy on As the World Turns, a new thirty-minute soap opera, the show was done live, and of course it was shot in black and white. It premiered on CBS on April 2, 1956, and I uttered the very first line. I was lying in my bed, and I turned to the actor playing my husband, who was lying in his own bed—oh, no, a man and woman weren’t allowed to be seen in the same bed back then—and I said to him, “Good morning, dear.”
• That was fifty years ago. No one—not Walter Cronkite, not Edward R. Murrow, not Johnny Carson—has remained on the same show for as long as I have.
• Back then, the plot lines were friendlier. The show’s creator, Irna Phillips, wrote about relationships. She didn’t write about someone constantly trying to have sex with someone else or trying to get something from somebody or trying to burn them up or murder them or make them unhappy.
• I don’t enjoy the sex on the show today. I don’t think it’s happy. It’s all just physical. People should be more interested in the other side of sex, the emotional attraction.
• The one thing that hasn’t changed on the show is my character. Nancy has grown older—she’s now a great-grandmother—but she’s still advising people the way she always did and helping them with their problems. She still believes in self- respect and in courtesy and kindness. Recently, Nancy learned that Gwen’s baby actually wasn’t Gwen’s—it really belonged to Jennifer—and that Carley was trying to take over and be the baby’s mother. Nancy stepped in to help make sure the baby got into the right hands.
• In real life, I’ve been married to my husband, Robert Willey, for 52 years. We met when we were stage actors in New York. Today he’s a train collector and an art student and a stamp collector.
• Retire from the show? Well, I am 87 years old, and my memory isn’t like it was. But I still have the ability to remember all my lines, and I can still move. And I assume the producers don’t have a plot line to kill me off anytime soon. They just asked me to sign a new three-year contract.