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Irna Phillips (July 1, 1901 – December 22, 1973) was an Americanmarker actress and most notably writer who created and scripted many of the first Americanmarker soap operas. She is considered by many to be the "mother" of the genre.

Phillips is best known for creating radio and TV soap operas. She created or co-created the following soap operas:

Phillips also was a creative consultant on Peyton Place (1964-1969), and was an unofficial consultant on A World Apart, which was created by her adopted daughter Katherine (some of the story elements were reportedly based on Phillips' own life).

She is recognized as one of the most important pioneers in television history, and as the originator of the daytime TV drama (i.e. television soap opera). She was also the mentor to Agnes Nixon, the creator of All My Children and One Life to Live, and William J. Bell, the creator of The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful.

Personal life

Phillips was one of ten children born to a Germanmarker Jewish family in Chicagomarker. She studied drama at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaignmarker (where she became a member of Phi Sigma Sigma sorority), receiving a Master of Arts degree before going on to earn a master's degree in journalism at the University of Wisconsin–Madisonmarker.

Phillips wanted to be an actress, but quickly realized she was not attractive enough to have a successful career. From 1925 to 1930 she worked as a school teacher in Dayton, Ohiomarker, teaching drama and theatre history to schoolchildren. While working in this capacity she continued to attempt a career as an actress, and after performing several acting roles for radio productions at WGN in Chicago, she left her career as a teacher. At the age of 42, Phillips adopted a son, Thomas Dirk Phillips. A year later, she adopted a daughter, Katherine.


Early radio career

After working as a staff writer on a daytime talk show, Phillips created the serial Painted Dreams. Historians now believe the show to have been the first daytime serial specifically targeted for women. On this show Phillips wrote every episode, in addition to starring in the show as family matriarch "Mother Moynihan". It is believed that this serial incorporated much auto-biographical material, with Phillips' immigrant Jewish family portrayed as an Irish immigrant family.

Although this show began as an unsponsored program, Phillips quickly recognized that a radio series must be a "utility to its sponsors" and that it must "actually sell merchandise; otherwise the object of radio advertising has failed". With this in mind, she wrote in an engagement and a wedding which provided the possibility of product tie-ins.

Dispute over Painted Dreams

By 1932 Painted Dreams had become so successful that Phillips urged the local Chicago station WGN to sell the show to a national network. When they refused, Phillips took them to court, claiming the show as her own property. In the meantime, Phillips created a new show, Today's Children, which was little more than a thinly disguised version of Painted Dreams. For example, Mother Moynihan became "Mother Moran". Much of the storyline remained the same. Historians believe that Today's Children represents the first instance of a broadcast network soap opera, thereby crediting Phillips with inventing the genre.

By 1938, Today's Children was a massive hit on NBC radio. Later that year, Painted Dreams emerged from the courts and was purchased by CBS. The nature of the court settlement prohibited Phillips from any future involvement with the series. However, the national broadcast of Painted Dreams never matched the popularity of Today's Children.

In 1938, Phillips's mother, who had been the inspiration for the matriarch character, died, and Phillips demanded that Today's Children be discontinued out of respect. NBC agreed and replaced it with her new series, Woman in White.

Woman in White

Woman in White was another early creation, and one of the first serials to focus on the internal workings of a hospital. It has been suggested by many individuals ranging from soap opera historians to Agnes Nixon and Harding Lemay that Phillips was hypochondriac; she allegedly consulted a doctor every day. (In the 1970s, shortly before Phillips' death, Nixon and Lemay both recalled an incident where Phillips had finally decided to take a trip to Europe - she had booked passage on a hospital ship docked in the harbor.)

It was on Woman in White that Phillips first became involved with a young Agnes Nixon, then known by her maiden name, Agnes Eckhardt. Nixon remembered entering an interview with Phillips carrying a script she had written which Phillips proceeded to act out in front of her. When she was finished she offered Agnes a job. William J. Bell, too, began his apprenticeship under Phillips during her radio days.

Radio and television success

In the 1940s, Phillips wrote two million words a year, dictated six to eight hours a day, and earned $250,000 a year. Other successful shows beyond Woman in White included The Road to Happiness (1939-1960), The Brighter Day, and The Guiding Light, which began in 1937.

In 1938 Phillips supervised the creation of the tie-in book, The Guiding Light, published by The Guiding Light Co. of 360 North Michigan Avenue Chicago, Illinois. The book traced the backstory of the radio series, told from the point of view of the "keeper of the guiding light", Reverend John Ruthledge.

In a segment of The General Mills Hour, characters from various Phillips radio dramas interacted. This can be seen as somewhat surprising as Phillips would later hold the belief that viewers would not follow crossover storylines well, a belief debunked in 1965 when Agnes Nixon brought two of The Guiding Light's main characters to Another World to visit a friend.

In 1949 Phillips created the first serial broadcast on a major television network, These Are My Children. The show, which ran on NBC for a month, was a rehash of Today's Children and Painted Dreams, and attracted negative reviews. Undaunted, Phillips brought The Guiding Light to TV in 1952, with The Brighter Day following in 1954. Both shows gained a following - Brighter Day ended in 1962 and The Guiding Light (later shortened to Guiding Light) ended its run on September 18, 2009, making it the longest running program in broadcast history having a 72 year run on radio and television.

In 1956 Phillips broke new ground by creating As the World Turns, the first daytime drama to run a half-hour. The show was one of the first to employ deeper character studies and extended closeups. Although some were skeptical, within two years As the World Turns became the highest-rated drama, a position it would retain for over two decades.

Phillips co-created Another World in 1964. Originally planned as a sister show to As the World Turns this proved next to impossible. Although Procter & Gamble owned both shows, CBS had no room for the program and it was brought to rival NBC. Both shows did contain crossovers from background character Mitchell Dru, a lawyer character from The Brighter Day (although as is stated he was only used as a background character, never involved in integral storylines). Another World, which included the first (albeit illegal) abortion ever on a soap opera, proved to not be her forte. Phillips & Bell gave the show over to James Lipton, who quickly passed it onto Agnes Nixon.

She co-created Days of our Lives in 1965, was a story consultant on Peyton Place, and then co-created Our Private World, the first (and so far only) primetime series to be spun off from a daytime show. The series featured the wildly popular As the World Turns vixen Lisa Miller and ran for several months.

Personality and temperament

Phillips gained a reputation for being very challenging to work with, and would often make seemingly arbitrary decisions about story and cast.
  • Within six months of the debut of As the World Turns, Phillips fired lead actress Helen Wagner because Phillips said she did not like the way she poured coffee. Procter & Gamble and CBS both backed Wagner, and Phillips was forced to re-hire her. Wagner is still with the show, over fifty years later.
  • In his memoir Eight Years in Another World, writer Harding Lemay recalled an anecdote about Phillips calling the production offices of As the World Turns after an episode had aired that she disliked. The receptionist answered the phone: "As the World Turns". Phillips angrily replied, "Not today it didn't!" and hung up the receiver.
  • Phillips demanded her stars never go by their real names in public.
  • Her interference became so bad that by the mid-1960s Guiding Light executive producer Lucy Ferri Rittenberg refused to accept Phillips' collect phone calls, made from her home in Chicago to the show's New Yorkmarker studio.
  • During one production day, As the World Turns actress Eileen Fulton accidentally dropped her script on the floor; actor Don McLaughlin (who played Chris Hughes) hurriedly picked it up and told Fulton that "[A] Phillips script, like the American flag, could never touch the ground."
  • Agnes Nixon, a Phillips protégé, said of Phillips, "Irna was her own best creation."

Phillips fired veteran actor John Beal from Another World after only one episode, and actress Fran Sharon (who played Susan Matthews) after two weeks. Phillips frequently clashed with actors, particularly with lead As The World Turns actress Rosemary Prinz. In a 1976 interview, actress Kay Campbell recalled, "I'll never forget once on As the World Turns, Rosemary Prinz did a scene, and when we were only off the air five minutes, Irna was on the phone and tore her to pieces. I don't think Irna liked actors." This experience made such an impression on Campbell that when she was offered a role on Guiding Light, she refused it until she learned that Agnes Nixon would be in charge. This experience cemented her already long friendship with Nixon, and in her later years, Campbell accepted the role of Kate Martin on All My Children.

In the mid-1950s CBS informed Irna that they wanted to experiment with a new color technique and would film and broadcast a live episode of The Guiding Light in color. Although many were pleased with the idea, Irna was not and made sure the entire episode took place in an operating room, ensuring that most of the colors were bright white, drowning out any of the positive effects of the new system. CBS got the hint and stayed away. By contrast, Search for Tomorrow happily complied with the process and was given a number of color episodes in the 1950s and early 1960s.

In 1958, she had a popular Guiding Light character, Kathy Roberts, killed off via kids accidentally pushing her wheelchair into oncoming traffic. Rumor had it she did it to make As the World Turns, which was faltering in the ratings, more successful. The ratings moved up that year and took the top spot for the first time that fall, but there has been no solid proof of a direct correlation. When grief-stricken fans barraged CBS with protest letters, Phillips responded with a form letter: "You have only to look around you, read your daily papers, to realize that we cannot, any of us, live with life alone..."

She left Love is a Many Splendored Thing abruptly when CBS censors refused to fully tell a love story involving an Amerasian woman (born out of the love affair in the original film) and a white man. CBS and Twentieth Century-Fox Television were co producers of the show. Phillips' resignation led to the show being moved from Fox's New York studios (and the end of Fox's role as co-producer and distributor) to CBS's Broadcasting Center, and the change of the music base from studio-orchestral to organ and piano based.

Final years

Phillips was the unofficial story editor for A World Apart, an ABC soap opera that was created by her daughter, Katherine, but it was not a success. One of the main characters was a soap opera writer who lived in Chicago and was in charge of a soap opera in New York.

Around this time As the World Turns (ATWT) asked her to come back and write for them. The show, which had faltered in the ratings slightly, needed a boost to make sure that it could keep the #1 slot. The ratings went back up, but over time, the stories failed to compete with rival soap Another World (which was co-created by Phillips), and in November 1971, As the World Turns fell out of first place for the first time since 1959.

Phillips introduced a number of characters to the show and integrated them with the core Hughes family. However, ATWT was now in competition with both Another World and General Hospital for the top slot, and Procter & Gamble, the show's sponsor, made it clear that Irna's days would be numbered if she did not succeed in driving the show's ratings up again.

Further controversy centered around Phillips' new story, and the show's new heroine, Kimberly Sullivan (Kathryn Hays), who became involved with longtime hero, Bob Hughes (Don Hastings). Bob was married to Kim's sister Jennifer, but Phillips, who had created the strong and independent Kim from the shreds of her own life, had Kim seduce Bob. She became pregnant. Fans were outraged and CBS/P&G demanded Kim be "punished" via miscarriage or another melodramatic route. Phillips refused, planning to have Bob divorce Jennifer and marry Kim. P&G fired Phillips in early 1973; it was to be her last writing gig. (Ironically, Bob and Kim would go on to become one of the show's more popular couples, and is now the "tentpole" couple of the show.) In the early 1980s a storyline consisted of Bob and Kim finding their child had lived. The actress to play the role of Sabrina, Julianne Moore, looked identical to Moore's other character, Frannie.

Death & recollections

Recollections of Phillips in her final months can be found in Harding Lemay's 1980 memoir, Eight Years in Another World. Irna Phillips had been doing consultant work for Another World and her ideas clashed with those of Lemay, but he grew to respect her. When she died in 1973, aged 72, from undisclosed causes, he learned that Phillips had requested that her family not write an obituary upon her death.

Feeling she deserved better, Lemay wrote her obituary and he and his wife paid to have the words placed in the New York Times. Agnes Nixon learned of Irna's death when she called her mentor to wish her well on Christmas Day. According to Nixon, Phillips had not wanted anyone to know that she had passed on.

Memories of Irna Phillips from the point of Agnes Nixon and several other "behind the scenes" individuals can be found in the book All Her Children, written by Dan Wakefield, which was published in 1976.


On January 25, 2007, in an episode celebrating the 70th Anniversary of Guiding Light, the current cast portrayed actors and behind-the-scenes personnel from the early years of the series (both radio and TV) Beth Ehlers played Phillips and several incidents in her life are fictionalized in the show.





  1. As quoted on pages 17–18 of Worlds Without End, published in 1997 by the Museum of Television & Radio.
  2. This is reprinted in several sources but appears to have originated from Irna Phillips' obituary in the New York Times.
  3. Waggett, Gerald J., The Ultimate Another World Trivia Book, p. 39
  4. Wakefield, Dan. All Her Children, pp. 36–37

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