The Gospel of Saint Agnes

I’m just getting back to my desk here, so to speak, after some time away. There’s a lot of catching up to do!

Yesterday, Decades Network (a digital network that plays old sitcoms and shows) replayed an episode of Dick Cavett’s show that featured Agnes Nixon as his guest.

The time frame appears to be around 1977-78, when All My Children had been in the works and/or running for about eight years. Cavett, who has appeared on practically every network over the years, had a show on PBS at this time.

It’s an interesting interview, more relaxed in many ways than I think we ever saw Agnes in later interviews.

I did pick up Agnes’ autobiography in March, when it hit the streets.

I wish I could give it a rave, but I had mixed feelings about it.

The most fascinating part was the part we really didn’t know much about: young Agnes and her story prior to her rise to prominence.

Readers of the book will understand that in characters like Palmer Cortlandt, Agnes was in many ways writing about her own father.

The part that was truly her story is fascinating. But it is almost seventy percent of the book. When she gets to her soap-writing days, the momentum slows.

Like Bill Bell’s book, it feels sanitized when discussing other people, the networks, etc. There’s a bit of cordial professional conflict peppered in, but if you were looking for a really in-depth understanding of what it was like to be a woman heading productions like these in the 60s and 70s, that isn’t really the take here.

Aside from a pointed rant about the shows’ cancellations, she is relatively kind, and she gushes about many of the people who have worked with her and for her.

So if you want AMC dirt, you may be disappointed. But it’s worth a read to learn about the woman herself. She was fascinating, determined, and talented. It’s easy to see where Erica Kane got her strength.

There are precious few soap-themed books that have gone deep into authenticity. Eight Years In Another World remains the standard bearer. The recent Llanview book by Jeff Giles was very well done, allowing everyone to express their perspective.

Most other books have stayed in a relative safe zone. Some, like Kim Zimmer’s I’m Still Here, have been more revealing about personal things than about the ins and outs of the industry.  (Yeah, Zimmer had some pointed words about the end of Guiding Light, but nothing that hadn’t already been discussed in the soap press.)

Jeanne Cooper’s book was similar. Lots of personal revelations, few professional ones.

I’ve had a specific book project of my own in mind for a while. But it’s been a challenge to move forward.

Actors and production people are, in general, reluctant to speak in a frank, honest way about their work. It could be a number of reasons: a perception that the squeaky wheel might be a difficult one to work with, or a code of silence (speak out, and never get hired again), to name a few.

Who will be the one to write another Eight Years? Who will capture the industry, in all its wonder and all its dysfunction?

Who will give voice to the love we have for the genre, while acknowledging its mistakes, acknowledging how we got to here?

I’m going to have to watch this clip again. It may be from 40 years ago, but the storytelling wisdom Saint Agnes drops on all of us in this clip is ageless and timeless.

POSTSCRIPT: Cavett was, well, Cavett-y in this clip. But I liked his intro, and the joke about “Dutch elm disease.”

Cavett has a tie to soap opera: his first wife, Carrie Nye, appeared twice on Guiding Light: once in the 1980s as the evil real estate agent Susan Piper, and then again in 2003 as Carrie Carruthers, part of the hugely unpopular Maryanne Carruthers storyline. (She died a few years later, in 2006.)

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3 thoughts on “The Gospel of Saint Agnes

  1. Patrick,

    Great to see you back writing again! Don’t stay away so long.

    Thanks for including the Agnes on Dick Cavett show video. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Dick Cavett was always such a good interviewer. He brought out the best in Agnes.

    As far as Agnes’s book goes. I agree with you completely. Loved hearing about her early life, but the juicy details I was hoping for about behind the scenes happenings on the shows was completely missing. Even though they promoted the book as revealing what it was like to be a woman in a male dominated industry, very little in the book helped you understand that. I had high expectations for this and ended up being disappointed. Agnes’ book is sSlightly better than the Bill Bell bio. But is certainly was not the insider reveal that the soap industry so desperately needs. You’re right, Harding Lemay’s book is still the gold standard and nothing else has come close to matching it.

    What frustrated me the most about Agnes’ book was all the little mistakes. Oy vey!! A fact checker should have caught all these little mistakes. The book is just littered with them, including getting actor and character names wrong (Eden Riegel referred to as Erin at one point, OLTL’s Dr. Jim Craig being referred to has Dr. Tim Craig), listing the wrong debut date and time slot for OLTL, claiming Rachel and Ada were a part of the AW cast when she started headwriting the show (both were her creations), and saying that the OLTL character of Ed Hall was white and involved in an interracial romance with Carla (Ed was a black character). None of these are major mistakes, but little things like that take away from the credibility of the book.

    Two other glaring omissions were the complete failure to mention of her other soap creation, Loving, and the brief on-line versions of AMC and OLTL in 2013, especially her role in getting those shows online. I also was hoping for a greater discussion of her time on AW (she propelled the show to the top of the ratings) and on GL. And perhaps most glaring of all, she failed to discuss her opinion about the undoing of Erica’s history-making abortion storyline.

    Will there ever be a soap bio that measure’s up to Harding Lemay’s gold standard? Not looking like it. But someone could do a bio of Doug Marland and get people to really talk, it could be quite revealing. Similarly a bio of Paul Rauch could be fascinating if you could get people to really talk. But getting people to feel safe enough to spill the inside dirt would be the challenge . . .

    Hi James, thanks for the kind words!

    I want to emphasize there was a lot to like in the Nixon book, but yes, I think what it was promoted to be and what it was were two different things. I did notice many of the small issues. I think on some of the social media conversations I saw, it was assumed Agnes wrote a lot of it after her stroke and may have gotten some of the particulars wrong. Whether that’s so or not I cannot say.

    I understand professional courtesies may have prevented true dirt from coming out, and I know AMC in particular has always been described as a very tight knit cast with little drama, but it would have been great to hear about some of the struggles she undoubtedly had with ABC, or pushback or challenges she may have experienced along the way. I think she was a no nonsense person, and while that helped to get stuff done, she may have downplayed her own achievements.

    Speaking of Marland….yes to more about Loving. And it would have been something to hear why she and Marland fell out, and why. But alas……

    I’m intimidated by the project I’d like to tackle for the same reasons – I know what I want to do and the pathway to get there, but convincing others to participate and tell their stories authentically? That’s a tall order. I’m a writer and editor, but I don’t know if I have that special something that convinces people to get on board. And many of these folks are still trying to land work, so there’s an automatic block preventing them from being as honest as they might otherwise want to be.

    • I met her in late 2011 when she was getting an award at Harvard. I don’t know if it was before or after her stroke, but she was extremely frail and more than once her memory wandered, which I didn’t think was that unusual for an 84-year-old woman. Of course, after her death, it was revealed she had shaved five years off her age. So, what I saw was even less surprising for an 89-year-old. I suppose the real shame is that she waited so long to begin writing her memoir.

      Agreed, Lynn.

  2. Patrick —

    Thanks do. much for posting this. I saw it a while ago on Decades, but loved seeing it sans commercials. Where did you find this video?

    I read “My Life to Live” with interest. I was fascinated to hear the details of how P&G screwed her @ “Search for Tomorrow.” Irna was so incensed by what happened that she insisted Aggie join her and Ted Corday to created “As the World Turns.” And I was more than amused to find out that Irna made her promise not to get pregnant again before “World Turns” was on the air.

    Hi Lynn –

    A fellow soap fan on Twitter mentioned it in her Twitter feed – it was actually broadcast live on Decades last week, and she Tweeted out the link. (Thanks, Donna Pool!)

    I didn’t realize prior to her book that she’d been involved with ATWT (or didn’t remember it, in any case.)

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