Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Helen, actress on ‘As the World Turns,’ dies at 91

LOS ANGELES: “Good morning, dear,” the character Nancy Hughes said to her husband from her twin bed as the cameras rolled for the premiere of “As the World Turns” on April 2, 1956.

The world has turned more than 19,700 times since the actress Helen Wagner uttered those first words for what would become one of the most popular and — until CBS takes it off the air in September — the longest-running daytime drama on television.

Wagner, who portrayed the straitlaced Hughes for all of those 54 years, died on Saturday at her home in Mount Kisco, N.Y. She was 91. The cause was cancer, her nephew David Laing said.

Proper and unassuming, Wagner’s Nancy Hughes stood for old-fashioned values — and never wavered. She was admired, and not only by housewives who, like Nancy, were striving to maintain a home while raising children. Well into the ’60s, Wagner received fan letters from young men saying she reminded them of their mothers and grandmothers.

But times change, and gone are the days when thundering chords from an organ underlined the discovery that Nancy’s grandson had been caught stealing change from his father’s trousers.

The citizens of the fictional town of Oakdale, outside Chicago, continued to have their feuds and affairs. But in recent years issues like incest, AIDS, drug and alcohol dependency, euthanasia, teen suicide and Alzheimer’s have laced the scripts.

Wagner’s Nancy lasted precisely because she remained solid; she wouldn’t join the country club because she considered it elitist, and insisted on cleaning her house because she felt uncomfortable being bossy.

Last December, however, CBS announced that after 54 years “As the World Turns,” at one time No. 1 in the daytime ratings, would broadcast its last episode in September. Wagner made her final appearance on April 5.

In 2004, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Helen Losee Wagner was born on Sept. 3, 1918, in Lubbock, Tex., one of two daughters of Charles and Janette Tinker Wagner. She studied music and drama at Monmouth College in Illinois.

Before signing a 13-week contract for “As the World Turns” in 1956, Wagner had been a singer and stage actress, sometimes working as a church soloist to pay the rent. She had roles in “Sunny River,” “Oklahoma!” and “The Bad Seed” on Broadway.

In 1954 she married Robert Willey, an actor and theater producer. He died last year.

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