Helen Wagner Helen Wagner

As the World Turns will end its phenomenal 54-year run September 17 with lots of fan-pleasing closure — romances, reunions, weddings — but first the show must deal with the death last spring of actress Helen Wagner. Her salt-o-the-earth character, Nancy Hughes, famously uttered ATWT's very first line ("Good morning, dear") back on April 2, 1956 and exec producer Chris Goutman wanted her to repeat it at the end of the final episode for the ultimate in TV cool. "Helen's death was a great loss, made even greater by the fact that she didn't make it to the end," says Goutman, who will have Nancy quietly pass away August 30. The soap will then pay tribute to both actress and character with a full farewell episode August 31. 

"I actually considered pre-taping that final scene with Nancy just to be safe but I thought that would be bad karma," reveals Goutman. "Then Helen died and we weren't able to do what we had planned, and that just added more emotional burden to what we were already feeling. But my God, she was 91 years old! What a terrific run! What a terrific lady! Helen was in failing health the last couple of years and it was hard to bring her onto the show successfully, but we did what we could. I wish we could have done more, but it was so difficult for her. Even under those conditions, she was a magnificent force."

Nancy's demise will come at a big time for the Hughes clan, just as Casey (Billy Magnussen) and Alison (Marnie Schulenburg) are about to announce their engagement (they want Nancy to be the first to know) and Chris (Daniel Cosgrove) is getting ready to tell his loved ones that he's suffering from a potentially lethal heart condition. Nancy's son Bob [Don Hastings] will go to her apartment to pick her up for the family gathering, and then must deliver the sad news that she has died. "Life and love and death and imminent loss will all be colliding at once but that's always been our town," says Goutman. "It's the kind of storytelling ATWT does best."

Don't expect the usual church memorial. "We decided not to go the traditional route in paying tribute to Nancy because she made it clear she didn't want anything fancy done," Goutman notes. "Instead, we pick up right after the ceremony with all the characters feeling like they need to do more for her. Casey takes the lead and challenges everyone to come up with a special way to honor Nancy, and that becomes our farewell episode."

Look for more exclusive scoop from Goutman about the end of ATWT next week!

Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!