When Irna Phillips was at the height of her career, she controlled an empire that would be considered astonishing today. But what makes her story all the more amazing is that she did it during a time when being a woman with so much power was virtually unheard of.
Irna Phillips Builds An Empire
She was the creator, nurturer, and mastermind of the soap opera genre. Although she hoped to be an actor, it was writing that would make her a star. Phillips got her start in 1930 in Chicago on radio station WGN, writing and acting in what most consider the first soap opera, Painted Dreams.
It was clear from the beginning that Phillips had a talent for creating realistic, multidimensional characters and putting them in fascinating settings. She knew instinctively that soap opera could reach an audience in a much more personal and intimate way than any other medium. She went on to create more radio dramas, including The Guiding Light, which eventually moved to television.
But her greatest creation came when she brought As The World Turns to the television airwaves. Here was a serial that focused on character in lieu of action, with long conversations and dramatic ambiguities. What became cliché years later was totally and thoroughly original in 1956.
Ruling the Roost
The late Edward Trach, an Executive on Procter & Gable’s soaps who had a longtime association with Phillips, noted that her storytelling “was intensely intimate, full of a kind of minutiae of life and full of emotional undercurrents. And it was highly subjective and psychologically based on what people said and what people thought and how different characters would react.”
She knew that the audience wanted to get to know characters as real people, and, so, she explored every facet, every motivation, every thought of her characters. That made these people real and genuine to the audience. And Irna’s characters were very real to her, too.
The stories of her relationships with her characters are, in fact, legendary. The late Helen Wagner, who played Nancy Hughes on ATWT, once recalled that “she never talked to us as the people we were. She always talked to us as the characters she had created.”
Trach concurred, “In the old days, Irna wouldn’t even sanction the idea of actors appearing as themselves for interviews because she felt it was sacrosanct that performers not be put in a position of being seen away from their fictional self.”
“I was always John,” recalled Daytime Emmy-winning actor Larry Bryggman, who played John Dixon on ATWT. “I was never Larry.”
Fact or Fiction
Eileen Fulton (Lisa, ATWT) was notoriously upset over Phillips’ lack of a distinction between character and actor. “I fought her a lot, mainly because she would not accept the fact that I was Eileen Fulton playing a character. Irna was extraordinarily possessive of the characters she created and as far as she was concerned, we did not exist. She would call me up on the phone and say, ‘Hello, Lisa, this is Irna.’ And I would say, ‘Irna, this is Eileen.’ She would answer, ‘No, dear, to me, you are Lisa.’”
Irna Phillips was a powerhouse who didn’t suffer fools gladly. It’s said that she made executives quake in their boots when she’d call. “When I first joined Procter & Gamble,” recalled Trach, “I was somewhat intimidated going in to meet Irna. People told me horror stories and that other supervisors and producers had been eaten alive by her. They told me that I wouldn’t last six months with her. But when I met her, we hit it off pretty well and I could understand what she was trying to do in the way of storytelling.
“I ended up working with her – I think – longer than anybody else in the business, and I consider myself one of her disciples. I came out of Yale full of all this theory and gobbledygook on the craft of fiction and so on, but I became a student all over again in broadcasting and the serial form with Irna Phillips,” added Trach.
He continued: “And it turned out to be a very healthy, interesting, productive, challenging, maddening, exciting relationship. The thing that saved it very often was that she had a sense of humor and so when things got tense, very often that would be the refuge and the safety valve. We got to be good friends.”
The late John Clarke, an original cast member of another Phillips co-creation, Days of our Lives, remembered the beginnings of his show. “She was in on the casting and she was in on the readings that we did. She was the creative person behind the idea of the show. Irna seemed kind of hard-boiled, but that was her outer appearance. If you could talk to her one-on-one, she was just as soft and sweet as she could be.”
All told, Irna Phillips was responsible for numerous soap operas, including The Guiding Light, The Brighter Day, As The World Turns, Another World, Days of our Lives, and Love Is A Many Splendored Thing. And she left her mark on other shows via her protégés, Agnes Nixon and William J. Bell.
It is said that Irna was writing millions of words a year, but despite the variety of characters Irna Phillips created, it is she, herself, that remains the most fascinating of people. Brilliant, domineering, fierce, intense, ruthless, funny, sweet; all have been used to describe this remarkably complex woman.
Unfortunately, Irna’s death in 1973 ended the script for an amazing life. “She was a very complicated woman, brilliant and outspoken” noted Ed Trach. “She could be affectionate one minute and cruel the next. She could be funny, she could be outrageous. She was always very demanding.
“A fascinating, unpredictable human being. But the fact is she was an incredible talent, not only in what she personally brought to soaps but how she touched the lives of others to give them the gift and to be a teacher to them. I think she was one of the legendary women in this century for her achievements in this form. She had a singular integrity to this sense of storytelling. She created and then blazed a trail and stuck with it no matter what.”