American actress Helen Wagner was born on September 3, 1918 in Lubbock, Texas. A graduate of Monmouth College, she got her start on theater before appearing in several drama specials on television. Her first regular television role came in 1952, when she starred as Trudy Bauer in the first years of Guiding Light on television.
In 1956, Wagner joined the cast of a then-new daytime soap, As the World Turns. She played the role of Nancy Hughes, the matriarch of the Hughes family and, as the drama progressed, perhaps the whole town itself. She spoke the first line on the program’s debut episode (“Good morning, dear, what would you like for breakfast?”) and has since gone on to have a significant stature in the program. For instance, she was in a scene which was interrupted by the first news bulletin announcing the assassination of President John Kennedy. The Guinness Book of World Records in fact credits her as the actress with the longest tenure in a single television role; although her appearances have been occasional, she still plays the role of Nancy Hughes until now.
Wagner played the role almost continuously. She was first fired six months after As the World Turns premiered after creator Irna Phillips did not like the way she poured coffee; she was brought back after an overwhelming consensus was reached. She left again in the early 1980s, after vocally disapproving of show producers’ decision to target a younger audience by giving less prominence to the Hughes family. Wagner returned to the program in 1985.
Despite her long tenure in the program, Wagner hasn’t won any Daytime Emmy Award. It was only in 2004 when she was finally awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award for her many accomplishments with the show. She was also prominently featured in As the World Turns’ 50th anniversary episode.