‘As the World Turns’: The Last Line of the Series Was a Touching Tribute to the Late Helen Wagner

Few soap operas can boast a long history like As the World Turns did. Starting in the 1950s and lasting until 2010, the groundbreaking TV show helped pave the way for several television tropes that remain strong to this day. A major force behind this, Helen Wagner, helped kick off the show when she delivered the first line. Fifty-five years later, they signed off with a tribute to the actor, who died not long before. 

As the World Turns cast
(Front, L-R) Helen Wagner (as Nancy Hughes) and Don MacLaughlin (as Chris Hughes)(Back, L-R) Don Hastings (as Bob Hughes), Rosemary Prinz (as Penny Hughes), and Michael Lipton (as Neil Wade) | CBS via Getty Images

Helen Wagner was Nancy on ‘As the World Turns’

Wagner was already a hard-working actor with soap opera experience when CBS planned on doing the unthinkable. During television’s early days, soap operas were typically 15-minute affairs due to their daily airings and a desire to give people bite-sized portions of melodrama. While her earlier show, Guiding Light, pioneered the format as its first major hit, As the World Turns set the pace, dozens of other soaps copy. 

However, while Wagner played the role of Nancy Hughes for over 50 years, she almost lost it before it had a chance to take off because, as she told Soap Central in one of her final interviews, she could not pour coffee the way that producers wanted her to. Wagner told the magazine:

“I almost lost my job after six months. [Actress and series creator Irna Phillips] did not think the actors existed out of their character. One day she was on the set when Nancy was doing another coffee-pouring scene. Nancy did a lot of those. Anyway, Irna did not like the way I was pouring the coffee. She went to the producers. They asked her to give me a chance to learn how to pour the coffee the way Irna wanted it poured.”

Luckily, be it an oversight or behind-the-scenes politicking, Nancy became an iconic character on the long-running soap opera. As such, when the show went off the air in 2010, it was only fitting to pay tribute to the dearly-departed Wagner by calling back to one of her first lines on the series. 

‘Good morning, dear…’

According to We Love Soaps, the first episode of As the World Premiered in 1956. Opening with Wagner and her co-star, Don MacLaughlin, the late actor delivered the very first line that audiences heard on what turned out to be one of the most successful series of all time. “Good morning, dear.” 

What followed was a 54-year run in which her Wagner went from young wife and mother to an elderly grandmother. Wagner’s work on the series helped define many archetypes that are still used today in the genre. While everything changed, from the moral standards of the 1950s to the tones that both remained true to the genre but evolved with the times, the core of the show remained throughout its nearly six-decade run. 

Wagner left the series in the 1980s after disputes regarding Nancy’s future on the show. Growing old, she was no longer the draw, but she felt that she was owed more lucrative roles throughout the show as such a popular character. While she never appeared on the show as a regular again, however, Wagner’s connection lasted to the very end. 

‘Good night…’

While no longer on the air, As the World Turns can be credited for many aspects of television entertainment that are still felt today. Long before the days of premium cable and more explicit shows that come with it, As the World Turns pushed boundaries, from boasting television’s first openly gay character to mature themes of sex and infidelity. The type of melodrama the show was known for helped pave the way for the Kardashians and Real Housewives alike.

As such, whether anyone watched the show every day for 55 years or knew about it in passing, the finale in 2010 was a big deal. Wagner, 92, died just weeks before its airing, but the series decided to pay tribute to the late, groundbreaking actor. According to TV Insider, when Don Hastings’ Bob Hughes left the stage for the last time, he said “Good night.” 

It brought the series full circle and wrapped it up in a tidy bow. While As the World Turns has been off the air for a decade, the genre survived the purge that took many heavy-hitters 10 years ago. While soap operas may no longer be the giant that they once were, their brand helped launch many of today’s biggest properties. Without Helen Wagner, this may not have been possible.