The Mega-successful, Classy World of Bill Bell

By Marlena De Lacroix a.k.a. Connie Passlacqua Hayman

When I was a girl soap reporter, I called him “Mr. Bell” during interviews because of Bill Bell’s exalted status in the soap industry.  And Bill Bell (1927-2005) would just laugh and go ahead to speak about Bill Bellwhat one always talked to him about: the work.  He was the only person I ever interviewed who hardly ever promoted himself personally.  And he was in show business!   Bell, a true gentleman, preferred to have his work speak for itself.

So I’m glad there’s a new biography that both examines Bell’s personal life story and takes a comprehensive look at his always top-rated soaps. The book, published by Sourcebooks, is titled The Young and Restless Life of William J. Bell, Creator of The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful and written by veteran soap journalist Michael Maloney and Lee Phillip Bell, Bell’s wife, who also co-created both soaps.

Bill Bell had a wonderful life, told in this book with same kind of class that helped make him such a remarkable person in life and in television history.

There was never a day in his 40-plus years in the soaps when Bell’s writing wasn’t excellent and his soaps engrossing and entertainingly and intelligently done.. He, his soaps, his family and his organization were  always all about class — and success.  And on top of all this, he was a genuinely nice man.

Bill Bell really was the prototypical American success story of a man who started humbly and worked his way to the top.  He came from a Midwest middle class family, served stateside during World War II, and then went to Chicago where he became an advertising executive.  But what he really wanted to do was tell serialized stories.  So he pursued and finally in 1956 landed a position as the on-site assistant/protégée to the great Irna Phillips, creator of soaps, writing her Guiding Light and phenomenally successful As the World Turns. With Phillips, he co-created another soap, Another World.   The chapters about Bell’s years working with (and learning from) the notoriously neurotic Irna are the most fun in the book.

Irna, who worked at home and dictated all her scripts talking in character to a secretary, was a hard task master. She called Bell (who had married top Chicago television personality Lee Phillip in 1954) at all times during the day and night and weekends.  Bell even acted as informal step-father to the eternally single Irna’s adoptive children.

That obsessive habit of working all the time was passed on to Bell who left in 1966 to headwrite the struggling Days of Our Lives. He was easier on himself than Phillips had been on him, however – he began to allow himself weekends and short vacations.

His Days of Our Lives – with its deeply psychological, extended Bill-Laura-Mickey triangle — was sublime, and his writing drove the show to number one in the ratings.  In 1972, Bell left to co-create his own show, The Young and the Restless, that was absolute soap heaven for its firsty&r ten years and periods afterwards.  Y&R would become (and still is!)  number one in 1989. (Bell retired from writing in 1998 but still produced both of his shows as long as he could. Suffering from Alzheimer’s  disease, he died in 2005.)  In 1987, he and Lee launched an instant hit, The Bold and the Beautiful (“a camp classic” as Marlena lovingly dubbed it the next year). Today B&B is the number two show (behind Y&R), as steered by Bill’s son Bradley, its headwriter and executive producer.

What I like best about this book is that it captures in such compelling detail how success like Bell’s doesn’t just happen. It’s the result of Bill’s long years of hard work, building a track record that inspired the trust of network executives. Thanks to Y&R‘s high ratings, CBS gave him total control of his shows, crucial to the their continuing success.  As both headwriter and executive producer he oversaw all aspects of the Y&R (and later B&B), b&bfirst in the years when he and his family still lived in Chicago and later when they moved to Los Angeles.  When I interviewed him at his upstairs Television City office, a monitor showing what was being taped on the show’s stage was never far from Bell’s sight.

My only criticism of this book is that, while it talks about Bell’s true soap genius, it never quite shows what I observed during my  interviews with him  – namely, what a tough and ambitious competitor Bell was, as only the most successful of TV executives are.

A dedicated husband and family man, he always credited his success to Lee.  The book spends much time on their close family, all of whom went into the family business of soaps — Bill Jr. to manage the business, Lauralee to the role of Cricket on Y&R and Bradley as his successor at the helm of B&B. There are even separate chapters that tell Lee and Lauralee’s stories.

And the book doesn’t skimp on explaining the root reason for Bell’s overwhelming success: he most truthfully always loved what he did (as only the best and most successful people in the business do).  Bell had a wonderful life, told in this book with same kind of class that helped make him such a remarkable person in life and in television history.

Comments

  1. Esther says:

    I’m so happy for Michael’s success with this book — he and Mr. Bell both deserve it. Thanks for giving the book such a great review.

    Marlena says: This book shows a lot of hard work and it paid off. There’s a lot of interesting interviews here with actors. other soap producers, and vintage soap journalists.

  2. Kevin says:

    After reading “I Want My MTV,” I realized I wanted to read something similar to this only set in the soap opera world (no-holds-barred telling it like it is and WAS!).

    I asked others if this Maloney book would quench my thirst but was told that it spills little secrets, gossip and since it was done in cooperation with the Bell family, it’s pretty light on the drama (pardon the pun!).

    Tell me (us), Marlena, is it pretty tame or scintillating?

    Marlena says: Well. I have to admit I was kind of surprised when the book addresses the 50′s-60′s soap industry rumor that Irna Phillips and Bill Bell were having an affair. It contains Bell’s own answer to that rumor, but I won’t spoil anything here.

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