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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Agnes Nixon is a writer whose words have touched millions and millions of Americans. She writes soap operas. Nixon started with radio. By 1951, she'd created her first TV soap. More than 40 years ago, she launched "One Life to Live" and "All My Children." And at 83, she's still going.

Last summer, Nixon won a Lifetime Achievement Emmy, which was presented by the pivotal character in "All My Children," the actress Susan Lucci, who plays the much-married, lovely, evil Erica.

Ms. SUSAN LUCCI (Actor): I would not be who I am today. I would not even be here today if Agnes had not created the feisty Erica Kane.

WERTHEIMER: The award cites Nixon for writing social issues into soaps: AIDS, abortion, racism, interracial relationships and same-sex marriage. Nixon says soaps were a cultural joke, and she wanted to be serious. She started with cancer, and one of the most-loved characters in the soaps, Bert Bauer, of "Guiding Light."

Ms. AGNES NIXON (Creator-Writer, "All My Children," "One Life to Live"): The first thing I ever did was a Pap smear test, getting women aware that uterine cancer could be cured if caught in time. And we did start the trend of doing social issues. I wasn't trying to change the genre. I was just trying to write what I thought what was interesting to me, and I guess it's called being a writer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: The cancer decision, that came out of a personal friendship.

Ms. NIXON: Yes. A friend died at 40. But I did some research on the subject of cancer, and found that uterine cancer is curable if caught in time. So I suggested it to Procter & Gamble, who owned the show, and to CBS, on which it was seen. And they said, oh no, no, no. That's an educational program. We're doing an entertainment program.

So I wrote out how it would be integrated into the story, and CBS and Procter & Gamble said, well, all right. Do it, but don't say uterus, don't say cancer and don't say hysterectomy.

And I thought, well, hmm. That's a little tough. So I wrote a scene when the doctor would tell Bert that she had what we called the irregular cells, rather than possible cancer. And so it was very successful, and that hooked me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NIXON: That made me realize, gee, we could do something.

WERTHEIMER: Was that the worst push-back you ever had? Did you feel at some point that you kind of hit a limit, and people just are not willing to let you do what you wanted?

Ms. NIXON: The most difficult thing, the thing that really shocked me, I had on the "Guiding Light," a main character was in the hospital and a nurse was an African-American, and they became friends. And so I had, after the patient went home, the nurse in street clothes came to visit her and dared to use the front door. And a store in the South cancelled Procter & Gamble products because of this, and I was severely criticized. And they said you just can't do something like that.

A year later, "One Life" went on, and the main story was one that forced the audience hopefully to examine their prejudices. Because Carla Gray was the character's name, and she was an African-American of very light pigmentation, and for five months the audience thought she was white. And she was engaged to a white doctor, then became a patient in the hospital and fell in love with a black resident. And I got a letter from a man in Seattle...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NIXON: ...that said: I want a protest that white girl kissing that black resident. And then he went on. He said: But I am getting confused. If she turns out to be black, I want to protest her kissing the white doctor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NIXON: Oh, my goodness.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NIXON: But that was the most difficult thing. But ABC said - I said may I do the stories I really feel important? And they said do them.

WERTHEIMER: You must have written thousands and thousands of pages of dialogue, oceans of conversations. Did you think of them as real when you were doing it?

Ms. NIXON: Oh, yes. Oh, absolutely. I have a little studio on the third floor in my house, and I go up there, and I have what we call the ugly chair. It's very comfortable, but it's very ugly. And I would sit there and sort of empty my mind, and then I'd hear them talking.

WERTHEIMER: We talked to Nixon in her New York an apartment, in a room bathed in the pinkish light of silk lampshades with her Emmy sitting on the windowsill.

She's a tiny woman, very pretty, very delicate looking. But when we went with her to the studios where "One Life to Live" was being shot, it was clear she is a very important person.

Unidentified Man #1: Ladies and gentlemen, we have God here.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man #1: You look good.

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

Unidentified Man #1: Oh, my God. The goddess is here.

WERTHEIMER: Work stopped, and the cast and crew crowded around Agnes Nixon. We stayed when they went back to the drama unfolding, a gritty story of booze and bar fights, part of Nixon's legacy.

Unidentified Man #2: In five seconds, four, three, two...

Unidentified Man #3: You know, for the record, back here at the bar before you started your little otter story, I had things under control. I had it handled.

Unidentified Woman: Ah-oh, I'm sorry...

WERTHEIMER: Meanwhile, Agnes Nixon was quizzing the producer about how to work the bad economy into scripts.

In our conversation about soaps over the last 40 years, I asked her if there was anything left that she thought her audiences should confront, and she mentioned Erica Kane's daughter, Bianca, "On All My Children."

Ms. NIXON: I think the last holdout was homosexuality. When we did Bianca and made the audience love her and respect her, we knew we had to make the lesbian daughter of a popular character and, of course, we let the audience know first, before Erica did.

So everybody was waiting to see how Erica would react. And that character, Bianca, became the most popular woman on daytime. I thought that was the last thing that I could think of. If you can think of something else...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NIXON: ...send me a postcard.

(Soundbite of theme music, "All My Children")

WERTHEIMER: Agnes Nixon on her long career as the creator and writer of many soap operas. We visited her in New York City.

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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