Kay Alden Nelson's big break into daytime television sounds like a plot out of one of her soap opera scripts.
"I was doing a dissertation for my Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin at Madison on how daytime television serials can be used as mediators for social change," recalls Nelson, 66. Her research included a trip to New York to watch tapings of "Search for Tomorrow" and submerging herself in the world of soap operas.
"I'd read about how Bill Bell (creator of soaps, including "Another World") just launched a new show called 'The Young and the Restless.' This was 1973. They said he lived on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, so I called information and asked for a William J. Bell on Lake Shore Drive. I called the number, and he actually answered the phone!"
Even more amazing, Bell agreed to an interview. Impressed with Nelson's thorough knowledge of his shows and her desire to become a writer, he offered the young graduate student a primer in the craft of scripting daytime serials — and, eventually, a job. Nelson launched her writing career with "The Young and the Restless" in 1974; she was named the show's head writer in 1998, a position she held until she left in 2006. She has been a writer and script editor for "The Bold and the Beautiful," another Bell show, since 2007. Nelson has won five Emmy Awards and two Writers Guild of America Awards.
Bell died in 2005. Nelson calls their working relationship "the greatest mentorship a person could ever have." She has been based in the Chicago area for her entire writing career, living in Streeterville with her husband, Vern. They have three children. The following is an edited version of our conversation.
Q: How did you come up with that topic for a dissertation?
A: I was watching this soap opera called "Where the Heart Is," and there was this really fascinating, value-oriented argument happening between this mother and daughter, (who was) dating her professor. The mother was saying, "This is a really bad idea," and the daughter was saying, "No, Mom, he loves me!" So I said to my friend, "I really wonder how many people are having their lives more significantly impacted right now watching this soap opera than those who watched (President Richard) Nixon's speech (on television) last night?"
I was surprised (the dissertation proposal) was accepted. This was 1972: There weren't a lot of dissertations out there about social change, and nobody admitted to watching soap operas, yet they were extremely popular. When I started my research, there were 14 on the air. Now there are four (on network TV).
Q: Do you think a soap opera can influence social change today?
A: It still has the ability to bring awareness to people. We won three Emmys for best daytime show with "The Bold and the Beautiful." The first year we won was with a heart transplant story. The next year involved death with dignity. Bradley (Bill Bell's son, now executive producer and head writer for "The Bold and the Beautiful") likes to do a message story every year. This last year, we did a story about kids aging out of foster care, which is a huge problem. Having a message and making an impact with the story ... it's a priority for Bradley. He is such a wonderful man.
Q: Back to that first interview with Bill Bell. How did it lead to a job?
A: He asked me, "What do you want to do with this degree when you finish it?" I said, "I have always thought that I would teach, but now, having been to these studios where these shows are made and after doing all this research, I would love to write these shows."
He was amazed at how much I knew about his shows. I ended up staying 2-1/2 hours. At the end of the interview I was borrowing some scripts ... and he said, "If you're really sincere in your interest, I'll give you an outline like I give my writers and see what you can do."
Q: Not everyone would be so brave!
A: I had mentally decided that if the interview went well, I would find a way to say I wanted to write for him — but I was totally thrown when the conversation started out this way. And I am not a risk taker, so ordinarily I would not have done it. But I realized, "This question is now in the air, and if I don't grab this moment, I may not have another chance." It was sort of a heart-stopping moment I have never forgotten, and I was very conscious that I was stepping outside of my comfort zone.
Q: How soon after that did you get hired?
A: It was over Thanksgiving. So after the holidays, I sent him a script, and he special-delivered me back another outline and a note saying, "This is a pretty good first attempt — your young characters are pretty good. It's very overwritten. Here's another outline, and take a crack at this one." And there was a check for $50. I'm in graduate school, so that was like a million bucks! After a few more trial scripts he said, "This is your show. What would you do next?" So I wrote some story ideas and sent those to him. Then one morning in April 1974, my phone rings, and I pick it up, and he says, "Kay, it's Bill Bell. I have a job for you if you want it." That May I packed all of my stuff in a van and drove to Chicago. My entire family lived in the Chicago area ... and I stayed with them 2-1/2 years.
Q: How did you negotiate writing for a show that taped in Los Angeles while living in Chicago?
A: Bill was very much the man in charge, and in daytime television back in the day, the head writer is the person who controls the show. He didn't want to raise his children in Los Angeles, and he was able to do it from here. He never pressured me to move. I had little kids and ... he respected that I didn't want to raise my children out there.
Q: What's the best writing advice you've ever gotten?
A: Bill said, "Write for the ear, not for the eye." And then it clicked. Even now, I tell my writers, "Read your material out loud." Because if you can't say it, an actor can't say it.
Q: What advice would you give aspiring writers?
A: Get a foot in the door. If you can get a job as a receptionist or anything in a production office or as an intern, get in the door. When I got the job, I remember ... my first day in that May of 1974, and I said to my mother, "I intend to make myself indispensable." I don't even know where that came from, except that I felt so fortunate that I'd gotten my foot in the door for something I really wanted to do. I intended to make it work.
Q: That attitude applies to any ambition, doesn't it?
A: I was the kid who did extra credit on the extra credit. If there was anything else I could do, I would do it. If it meant staying up all night, I would do it. ... There's a sense of entitlement we see a lot today, and that drives me insane. You need to be willing to put in the time, and that might be exhausting, but it will pay off.
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