Irna Phillips (July 1, 1901 - December 22, 1973) wrote and created many of the first American soap operas. She is considered by many to be the mother of the genre.
Phillips got her start in show business doing voice over and acting work for WGN radio in Chicago, her hometown. She started writing radio serials for WGN, which quickly spread across the country. Her most famous radio shows were Today's Children, The Brighter Day, and The Guiding Light.
She is best known for creating soap operas for television, like Guiding Light (1937-1955 on radio, and 1952-present on television), The Brighter Day (1948-1956 on radio and 1954-1962 on television), As the World Turns (1956-present), and Another World (1964-1999).
She also created Love is a Many Splendored Thing (1967-1973), the short-lived Our Private World (1965), the radio version of Young Dr. Malone , and Days of Our Lives (1965-present). Irna was creative consultant of Peyton Place (1964-1969). She 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. As of 2004, only two (Passions and General Hospital) out of the nine daytime soaps have no ties to the Phillips legacy.
Rumors abound that Phillips was very hard to work with. Irna was quoted as calling up her serial, As the World Turns, after an episode had aired that she did not particularly like. The receptionist answered the phone: "As the World Turns." Irna responded, "Not today it didn't!" and hung up the receiver. She demanded her stars never go by their real names in public. She has also been rumored to have driven some of her stars, like Rosemary Prinz, to nervous breakdowns.
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 at GL were pleasd with the idea, Irna was miffed at any element which was out of her control. She 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 were given a number of color episodes in the 50's and early 60's).
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. In 1967, upon Phillips' return to Guiding Light, she had Kathy's stepdaughter, Robin, who had become a popular character in her own right, jump in front of a car. Fans were not thrilled and Phillips was removed from the show.
She left Love is a Many Splendored Thing abruptly when CBS censors refused to fully tell a love story involving an Amerasian woman and a white man (born out of the love affair in the original movie). It was at this time that As the World Turns asked her to come back to 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 created by Phillips), and in November 1971, As the World Turns fell out of first place for the first time since 1959. Irna 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.
Irna had been in the midst of a feud with actress Jane House (who played Liz Talbot) because House was appearing on Broadway by night doing nude scenes (in Lenny). She tried to have Liz die via pneumonia, but fans flooded the switchboards and CBS ordered a miracle for Liz. House left the show, but Irna transferred her hatred onto the character and had Liz, who was since replaced by another actress, die due to a ruptured spleen as a result of falling up the stairs.
The major controversy centered around the show's new heroine, Kimberly Sullivan (Kathryn Hays) and the 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. Phillip refused, planning to have Bob divorce Jennifer and marry Kim. P&G did not like the choices Irna was making with the serial, and fired her in early 1973. She retired from soaps completely and died later that year. Ironically, Bob and Kim would go on to become one of the show's more popular couples.
Recollections of Irna in her final months can be found in Harding Lemay's 1980 memoir, Eight Years in Another World. Irna had been doing consultant work for Another World and her ideas clashed with new headwriter Lemay's, to say the least, but he grew to respect her. When she died in 1973, he learned that no one had bothered to write her obituary. Feeling she deserved better, Lemay wrote her obituary and he and his wife paid to have the words placed in the New York Times.