May 06, 2005

Bill Bell, R.I.P.

A giant in the world of soap operas, William Bell, died one week ago today at the age of 78. Bell is best known for creating the highest-rated soap opera of the past two decades, Young and the Restless and perhaps the strongest internationally, The Bold and the Beautiful. He also turned around an ailing Days of Our Lives in 1966. When he left it, in 1970, it was arguably the strongest daytime serial on television.

Bell was never a master of dialogue. But he understood story, and particularly long-term storytelling, as well as anyone in daytime history. I was lucky enough to meet him several times, including a long visit in his stunning Lake Shore Drive apartment in Chicago, when he was kind enough to spend time with a graduate student while fielding desperate calls from Y&R and DOOL (he was head-writing both at the time).

He spoke of his characters and plotlines with the utmost seriousness. He had complete faith that if he did his part well, the audience would follow. He did and they did.

I'm not sure there is any writing job in television as complex as headwriting a soap opera. In my opinion, there have been four giants in the history of soap operas. Irna Phillips, who created the form in radio, and went on to create As the World Turns; Agnes (All My Children) Nixon, trained by Irna Phillips, who modernized the form and expanded the subject matter of soaps; and Claire (Ryan's Hope)Labine, who wrote the strongest dialogue and created the most vivid world in the history of the medium; and Bill Bell.

As a fan of the genre, it's frightening to me that so far no young whippersnappers have burst forth to share these giants' talents. Bill Bell trained his own children to succeed him, and time will tell if they make the same high level of contributions.