Marlena’s Personal Recollections of Soaps’ Greatest Headwriters, Part One

I got my start as a soap opera journalist in 1979. There were so many shows to watch and write about then — 13, such a feast! For me, the best part of the job was (and still is) meeting, interviewing and getting to know the people who make them: actors, producers, directors, daytime network executives, etc. As a writer, though, I always gravitated toward the headwriters — the pros who crafted the most important element in any successful soap, its story lines.

This week and next, I want to share my personal recollections of six of the medium’s greatest headwriters. All of them have passed, but they have left behind a wonderful legacy of timeless work. Oh, the long and frequent interviews I did with them — in person, on the phone, at the studios and at soap anniversary parties.

Agnes Nixon (1922-2016): All My Children, One Life to Live, Loving, The City and more.

I watched OLTL and AMC from their premieres, in 1968 and 1970 respectively, when I was a teenager. Both premiered during a rocky time in our history: The Vietnam War was raging, the counterculture was at its peak and the women’s movement was busy being born. No other writer had her finger more firmly on the pulse of that era than Nixon, who used depictions of life in Llanview and Pine Valley to reflect the incredible cultural climate of the times. OLTL examined life in Llanview through the lives of two families, the wealthy Lords, featuring the great Erika Slezak as Viki, and the working-class Woleks. AMC’s locale was the hamlet of Pine Valley, which was just like the real Pennsylvania town where Agnes and her family lived.

How absorbing and addictive both of Nixon’s shows were! From the moment Susan Lucci’s Erica Kane appeared on-screen at the age of 19, it was clear that Susan was destined for superstardom.

A girl who grew up without her father, Erica was married 13 times during AMC’s 41-year run. I can testify from conducting countless interviews and attending scores of awards shows that Lucci is as breathtakingly beautiful in person as she is on-screen. The room always stops when she walks in. No one in this medium is more gracious and beloved than Susan.

An afternoon spent interviewing Agnes at her New York apartment, where she stayed when her presence was needed in New York, was particularly memorable. I absolutely loved talking to her about her shows, her family and what she was writing. It was called All My Children for a reason. Agnes, who had four children with her husband, Robert Nixon, was truly a mother to everyone. And outside of my own mother, a librarian, I have never met anyone so well read.

Her socially conscious stories were truly of the moment. They were her thing, and what amazing tales she told. Sending Phil Brent off to his supposed death in Vietnam … portraying daytime’s first legal abortion (Erica’s, right after Roe v. Wade) … showing the heartbreak of a child being run over by a drunk driver. Her stories made viewers cry … and think.

In person, Agnes was smart and charming. She also had a wonderful sense of humor, a characteristic that was reflected in characters like Phoebe Tyler (played by the great Ruth Warrick) and even that hysterically funny pimp, Billy-Clyde Tuggle (played by Matthew Cowles.)

Agnes had been an actress before she became a writer, and she truly understood the performers she wrote for. (In fact, she made a few cameo appearances in both OLTL and AMC. See my earlier column “Agnes Nixon: Always Our Guardian Angel”)

Agnes was so human. She was number one in her field, yet she remained totally humble — and vulnerable. She had great charm, perhaps inherited from her Irish ancestors. Her Irish background was as reflected in a marvelous prime-time ABC miniseries (1981) that she wrote, Manions of America, which starred Pierce Brosnan.

When Agnes passed away in 2013, the hearts of everyone she knew and wrote for were saddened. In the end, we were all her children.

William J. “Bill” Bell (1927-2005) The Young and the Restless, The Bold and the Beautiful.

When I was in college, my classmates spent their time throwing frisbees and acting like hippies. I wrote for the school paper and ducked inside in the afternoon to watch soaps. And I’m glad I did.

I was dazzled by the 1973 debut of Bell’s Y&R. Wow! Everyone in the cast was beyond stunningly attractive (see David Hasselhoff as Snapper Foster, a role first played by William Gray Espy). The show was filled with music — John McCook as Lance Prentiss, singing in a night club, and Janice Lynde as pianist Leslie Brooks. Lushly produced by the late John Conboy, Y&R was totally alluring — and revolutionary for daytime soaps.

Mr. Bell, as I used to respectfully call him (when I interviewed him, he promptly countered, “Marlena, call me Bill”), and his wife, the late Lee Phillip, an enormously successful Chicago talk show hostess, co-created the show, which rocketed to the top of the ratings.

Bell never missed with a story line. Since the show’s debut, fans have been continuously intrigued by the ongoing battles for love and glamour in Genoa City.

Combatants included Kay Chancellor, a grand dame with a heart of gold and, sadly, a drinking problem. Her warmth and complexity were played superbly by the very much missed Jeanne Cooper. Her Kay struggled in vain to prevent sexpot Jill Foster (played by Brenda Dickson) from stealing her rich husband, Phillip (first played by John Considine and then by Donnelly Rhodes), while at the same time generously taking fellow troubled alcoholic Nikki Newman (played by Melody Thomas Scott) under her wing.

Whenever I interviewed Mr. Bell in person at his Studio City office, I could sense his ambition and the passion he had for his work.  The fiercest of competitors (he and Agnes Nixon were both mentored by Irna Phillips, who pioneered the development of the American soap opera on both radio and television and is considered the medium’s founder, and they became frenemies), he made his show number one, and it remains that way today, long after his death.

I actually grew up with Days, the show he wrote before he created Y&R, and I was not reticent about my admiration for the romance of Doug and Julie (played by Bill Hayes and Susan Seaforth Hayes) and the breathtaking Bill-Laura-Mickey love triangle.

Bill; his wife, Lee; and all the members of his family used to come to New York and throw the greatest anniversary parties for Y&R at the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center. Shrimp! Shrimp! Shrimp!  Oh, how we soap reporters loved those warm and incredibly lush occasions. Everything the Bell family has undertaken (Bradley Bell, the son of Bill and Lee, currently writes and produces B&B) is class all the way.

As I wrote in a column earlier this year (“Bold and Beautiful Is a Class Act”), I was fortunate enough to be in Mr. Bell’s office in 1986 when the phone call came from CBS with the news that the cancellation of the truly excellent John Conboy-produced Capitol would leave its time slot open for Bell’s new fashion-related show. I’ve been a staunch admirer of B&B since the day it premiered in March 1987.

As my longtime readers know, Marlena De Lacroix debuted as a soap critic in 1989 with a column called “Critical Condition” in Soap Opera Weekly. My first critique of the show, “Bold and Beautiful Is a Camp Classic,” is still one of my favorite columns. As my fans know, Marlena loves anything larger than life. And that’s the way Mr. Bell’s show was and still is. What a legacy he left in his two still-entertaining shows.

James E. Reilly (1948-2008) worked on eight soap operas, but he was best known as a headwriter of Days of Our Lives and, of course, as the creator and headwriter of Passions.

I met Jim at a group interview the day he won an Emmy for his work as a sub-writer on Guiding Light. Both of us were stay-at-home writers in the oh-so-social daytime drama world, so we felt like fellow outcasts and became very good friends. The friendship lasted until his premature death in 2008. There has never been a more creative and imaginative writer in the TV business. From the days when he buried Carly alive on Days and invented a split personality for Dr. Marlena (played by Deidre Hall) in which she became the devil herself, everything Jim wrote was wildly original and highly entertaining.

Passions, starring the 3-foot-2-inch teenager Josh Ryan Evans as Jim’s alter-ego Timmy and Juliet Mills as the good witch Tabitha, Timmy’s guardian, was Jim’s crowning creation, oh, so beautifully produced by the late Lisa Hesser de Cazotte. It was full of humor, inventiveness and all things Jim. How brilliant, playful and funny he was!

He was also a recluse who feared going out in public, and I somehow got to know him over the years via lunches and phone calls. Boy, did he know everything about the industry! He was also a great reader and a student of the classics. He brought Greek mythology to soaps, and let’s not forget Underground France in which he set one of his many over-the-top stories.

Jim truly loved the creative leeway he had writing soaps. He used to say to me, “Most soap writers think they’re only marking time in the medium until they get their prime-time break. As for me, I love the creative freedom you can only find on soaps.”

The tragedy was that Jim died suddenly on the operating table in 2008, when he was only 60. What a loss! In today’s world, in which we have only four network soaps (and the Days spinoff Beyond Salem currently streaming), no one comes close to duplicating Jim’s humor, creativity and imagination.

He brought out the best in a medium we both loved, and I still miss him.

Postscript: Mon cher readers:  Marlena can go on and on about soap headwriters. Part 2 of this column will be posted next week. I’ll be discussing Claire Labine of Ryan’s Hope (which she co-created with Paul Avila Mayer), One Life to Live and General Hospital (where she worked with the magnificent producer Wendy Riche); Douglas Marland, the former actor who wrote General Hospital during the Gloria Monty days of Luke and Laura, had a very successful stint on Guiding Light, and whose years on As the World Turns were a tour de force; and Henry Slesar, the brilliant headwriter of the mystery soap Edge of Night — and also a mystery novelist, and prime-time writer (Alfred Hitchcock Presents).


  1. These memories you’re sharing are GOLD, Marlena! Thank you for letting have a peek into what your world was like during the heyday of soaps! Can’t wait to see what you have to say about the folks next week!

    • Marlena De Lacroix a.k.a Connie Passalacqua Hayman says:

      Thank you so much as always Esther. I will leave their identities until next week. Let’s just say one wrote a show that you and I–and millions once loved. Hint: It had a lot of mysteries and intriguing suspense.

  2. David Johnson says:


  3. Anonymous says:

    Very well-done.

  4. leroy davidson says:

    I have read you first in Soap Opera Weekly, then here online. Then you were gone. Just today by chance,I revisited your website, and here you are again!! I am all caught up with the previous postings. Your opinions are always spot on. I’ve been a soap watcher since the early days (B&W, 15 minutes, live, organ music, etc.) and we had absolutely no coverage in any media whatsoever. I remember right off the names Irna Phillips, Agnes Nixon, William Bell. So glad to have you back!!

    • Marlena De Lacroix a.k.a Connie Passalacqua Hayman says:

      Marlena says: Thank you so much Leroy. I am so gratified to have gotten such a warm welcome back from old fans and welcome my new ones.

  5. Paul Ditty says:

    Thank you for this great post, Marlena! I still remember your article about B&B in Soap Opera Weekly. It was the first show I watched from the very beginning (and the only one I continue to watch regularly today) — I moved to LA with the dream of writing for it in 1997. Bill Bell was a gentleman through and through — taking my phone calls, even reading a script I wrote in college. He gave me great advice that I still apply to my writing today.

    So glad to discover this site. Thank you!

    • Marlena De Lacroix a.k.a Connie Passalacqua Hayman says:

      Marlena says: Welcome Paul to my blog. Mr. Bell was terrific in so many ways and I’m glad to know you had good experience with him. I love “B&B” and first column after it premiered is one of my favorites–“Bold and Beautiful is a Camp Classic.” Still is!

    • Pam Long bringing Reva and Alexandra was a great writer The 80s were not too bad for Guiding Light. They were #1 for three weeks. The Reva/Josh/Hb triangle and the fountain scene is incredible.

      • Marlena De Lacroix a.k.a Connie Passalacqua Hayman says:

        Marlena says: Thanks for writing Levi. I interviewed the great Pam Long (both when she was an actress and a headwriter.) What a dynamic talented woman! And I gave Ms. McKinsey the last interview before she passed away. In her retirement she had moved to a coastal town in California. The last thing she said to me made me cry: “All i want is my little dog and the sea.”

  6. But Irna Phillips is the Queen. If it weren’t for her I would never had GL. Up in Heaven, Irna I thank you.

    • Marlena De Lacroix a.k.a Connie Passalacqua Hayman says:

      Marlena says: Like you I wish I had known Ms. Phillips. We certainly like her shows.

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