By Allison J. Waldman
Special to TelevisionWeek
Actress Helen Wagner is more surprised than anyone that she’s in the “Guinness Book of World Records.” No, the actress who plays Nancy Hughes on CBS’s “As The World Turns” hasn’t eaten more Nathan’s hot dogs than anyone else or sailed the Atlantic in a raft. What Ms. Wagner has done is endured.
She has played her character on “ATWT” for 50 years, ever since it premiered April 2, 1956, and that’s a record. But she never expected it to be such a long run.
“One didn’t think about those things in those days,” she said. “You just worked from one day to the next. You had a contract, but having come from the stage, anything could happen. When a show ended, your contract was over. I had been on ‘The World of Mr. Sweeney’ with Charlie Ruggles and we just went from segment to segment.” Ms. Wagner had the gift for longevity even then; “Mr. Sweeney” ran five years.
In those days, television was still in its infancy and being part of a brand-new daytime drama was tantamount to being a pioneer. “Oh yes, we were very excited about going on the air,” she said. “Ours was the first 30-minute soap, but it wasn’t the length that made the half-hour difficult, it was the mechanical movement from set to set, moving the cameras and the booms and so forth within one minute. Commercials were one minute at the beginning, one in the middle and one at the end. That was the only time they had to move around.”
Thanks to her experience on “Mr. Sweeney,” as well as on live productions of “Studio One,” “Philco Radio Television” and “Suspense,” Ms. Wagner adapted to live television with ease. “Learning words was nothing for us, especially those of us who had been on the stage. It was not really that new to all of us because we had all done live television before. We knew we could do other things as well, because I was still doing nighttime television because this was live.”
Since “ATWT” was broadcast live, there were times when things didn’t go perfectly. “Sometimes there would be weather outside, like rain or snow, and that would come in under the wall of our house and they’d have to shoot around it, because we couldn’t stop to clean it up. And occasionally there would be things dropped, and you would either have to pick it up or just pretend it didn’t happen. You had to make do. And of course we knew how to cover when somebody went up on his lines. There were no TelePrompTers then.”
It didn’t take long for “ATWT” to become a success. Within two years the soap was No. 1 in the Nielsen ratings.
Paying a compliment to her acting ability, fans naturally assumed that Ms. Wagner was just like her character. But the actress adamantly maintains, “No, I’m not like Nancy. People will say to me in the supermarket or on the street, ‘Oh, I know you’re Nancy,’ but I always answer, ‘Only on the screen.’ I’m not Nancy off the screen. She never took a vacation, never went out except to friends’ homes. But my husband and I have always had season tickets to the opera, season tickets to the New York State Theater, tickets to the symphony, and we’d always go to see whatever’s on Broadway and then go to Sardi’s and have something to eat. That’s not the kind of thing Nancy would ever do. When I finish playing Nancy, I leave her at the studio and I go home.”
Over all the years she has played the character, Ms. Wagner believes, Nancy Hughes has evolved. “She’s grown up. She started off being a demanding soul and she’d tell everybody exactly what to do and how to do it, and she was kind, but she was ‘taking care of things,’ Ms. Wagner said. “I think she’s learned how to be more tolerant; she’s matured, she’s mellowed, she’s gotten less possessive of her family.”
But don’t think for a minute that Nancy’s a liberated woman. “I think she affected the women’s movement more than they affected her,” she said. “She wasn’t independent, but she was not under [her husband, Chris’] thumb by any means. She wasn’t in need of being liberated. She was a homebody by choice.”
To Ms. Wagner, Nancy was occasionally too much of a homebody. “Irna Phillips, who wrote for us for the first 20 years, had Nancy staying at home to such a degree that she never wanted to take a vacation, which made it very difficult for Helen Wagner to get away. Finally, Irna came up with a sister for me in Kansas City, so if I had to be written out to do something in the theater, they’d have Nancy visit her sister Pearl in Kansas City. Otherwise, Nancy stayed at home.”
“As The World Turns” has been a home away from home for Ms. Wagner for five decades. Cast members are close, and even former co-stars are never far away. “Occasionally they bring them back, like Penny [Rosemary Prinz], and we talk about them. We’re fortunate that way. [Our cast] has always enjoyed each other, all of us, and that’s one of the things that has made ‘ATWT’ successful. We’ve never had any real contention between cast members like on some other soaps. We hear about it, but it’s nothing like we’ve ever had.”
Of course, the 87-year-old veteran would be glad to have more to do on the show. In fact, that’s one of her few quibbles.
“They haven’t written for me as much as I would like lately, because they don’t write as much for the older people. But when they have, I think they’ve done it beautifully,” she said. “She has great relationships with the other characters, her family and grandchildren. Nancy’s never been the star character. She’s a tentpole; she holds up the tent for the rest of the circus to come in and do their thing. So Nancy doesn’t need a frontline story. She needs to run alongside a story and comment on it as she’s always done. So all in all, I like the way they’re using her. I just wish they’d use her a little bit more.”