By Steve Gorman Thu Mar 30, 8:18 AM ET
The 87-year-old actress says the secret to her longevity as matriarch Nancy Hughes on the CBS daytime drama "As the World Turns" is simple.
"They kept offering me a contract, so I kept doing it. And they kept writing things for me, so I kept saying them," Wagner recounted in a recent interview. "I didn't think about leaving or not leaving."
Years after James Arness of "Gunsmoke" and Kelsey Grammer of "Frasier" retired from their respective record-tying 20-year roles in prime time, Wagner still reigns supreme as the longest-running character on any TV show played by a single actor.
She has portrayed the kindly but plain-spoken Nancy Hughes since "As the World Turns" debuted on April 2, 1956, and even uttered the show's very first line of dialogue (spoken to her TV husband): "Good morning dear, what would you like for breakfast?"
As the sole original cast member on the series, Wagner and her alter ego have witnessed more than their share of tragedy and star-crossed romance, sibling rivalries, marital infidelity and treachery. Nancy has grieved the deaths of her beloved TV daughter and first husband, remarried and endured the gradual fading of her second spouse due to Alzheimer' disease.
Spanning the tenures of 10 U.S. presidents dating back to Dwight Eisenhower, Wagner's stint on "As the World Turns" also includes a unique real-life historical footnote.
It was a scene with co-star Santos Ortega (Grandpa Hughes) that was interrupted by the first CBS News bulletins reporting the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. The cast, which performed live in those days, initially continued on with the show, unaware of the tragedy unfolding in Dallas or that their program was being cut short.
"When Santos and I got off the set, having finished our scene, we came to the door, and Charlie Paul, who was playing the organ, said, 'JFK was shot.' And that's the first we had heard of it."
The only existing soap on the air longer than "ATWT" is "The Guiding Light," a sister Procter & Gamble production that began on radio and made its CBS television debut in 1952.
"As the World Turns" boasts some TV landmarks of its own.
Breaking with the original 15-minute format for soaps, "As the World Turns" debuted as the first half-hour drama in daytime (an hour is the standard length today) and was the top-rated soap for a record 20 years -- from 1958 to 1978 -- while racking up a total of 42 Daytime Emmy Awards.
The show also became the only daytime serial to spawn its own prime-time spinoff, "Our Private World," starring pioneering soap opera super-vixen Eileen Fulton as Lisa. The 1965 series only lasted a few months, but Fulton remains with the show after 46 years. Fellow incumbent cast member Don Hastings has played Dr. Bob Hughes for 45 years.
Other alumni have gone on to greater fame off the show, including Julianne Moore, James Earl Jones, Meg Ryan, Lauryn Hill, Marisa Tomei, Cicely Tyson and Jason Biggs.
Wagner began her career on the stage, appearing in such Broadway productions as "Sunny River," "The Bad Seed" and "Oklahoma!" before moving into television.
CONSCIENCE OF OAKDALE
Wagner's presence on "As the World Turns" has diminished in recent years as the series focuses on the intrigues of younger characters, but she remains a key figure in the fictional Chicago suburb of Oakdale, where the program is set.
"She is ... Oakdale's conscience," said executive producer Christopher Goutman. "Even the worst of our villains know that they can't pull the wool over Mrs. Hughes' eyes."
Currently, Nancy is embroiled in a mystery surrounding the publication of a scandalous novel, "Oakdale Confidential," which sheds light on the checkered pasts of several characters. A real-life novel tied into the series is due out from Pocket Books next month in conjunction with the show's anniversary.
Nancy, who began the series as rather assertive and opinionated, has mellowed over the years, and Wagner credits the writers with "letting Nancy grow up and grow old along with Helen, so I didn't have to cross over the border and be a character woman. I was just Nancy."
But Wagner insists that Nancy "is nothing at all like me."
"I never told people quite so much what to do as Nancy does," Wagner said, adding that she has always enjoyed a considerably more active social life, frequently going to the opera, ballet and out to dinner with her husband and friends.
"(Nancy) was always just a homebody," Wagner said. "I kept my house clean, but we still went out."
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