Sixteen Years After Her Last Appearance in Her Iconic Role, a Loving Tribute to the Late, Great Actress Who Had to Learn to Like Playing a Character We Loved to Hate
ABC/Courtesy of the Everett Collection (3)
They don’t make ’em like Ruth Warrick anymore.
By January 5, 2005, Ruth Warrick was no longer a regular presence on All My Children, where she’d played snooty Phoebe Tyler since the ABC soap’s debut 35 years prior. Health issues and a broken hip had taken the spring out of her step. But, as elegant as ever, she still put in an appearance on the occasion of the show’s 35th anniversary. (You can rewatch her grand entrance below.)
Sadly, the veteran actress would pass away just 10 days after the episode aired, on January 15 of that year.
From the beginning, Warrick was one of All My Children’s breakout stars. Which was, honestly, hardly a surprise. She’d already made a name for herself on the big screen (in Orson Welles’ 1941 classic Citizen Kane, no less) and on the small one (as independent-minded Edith Hughes on As the World Turns).
But the marriage of Warrick and Phoebe was something special. It took some work to get there, but oh, was it special. As the actress recalled for the Archive of American Television, when she asked All My Children creator for the role, she assumed that friends who knew her as a political activist would assume she’d sold out by taking on this character who was so very establishment. She knew how to fix it, though.
“I decided what I’d do [was] I’d make her sort of Billie Burke-ish, kind of a featherhead,” she said. “I’d never change a line, but I would stir the martinis gently so as not to bruise the gin, things of that nature.”
She thought it was going great. It wasn’t — not in everyone’s opinion, anyway.
A Bump in the Road
About two months into her new job, Warrick was taken to dinner by one of the show’s directors, who revealed — after many courses, each accompanied by wine — “I have to tell you that Agnes is very worried about you. If you don’t stop being funny, she’s going to fire you.”
Come again? As the director explained, every character was a cog in the wheel that kept the story going, and Warrick wasn’t fulfilling the duties of her cog. “‘You’re supposed to make people afraid, and they can’t be afraid of you when you’re so amusing,’” she remembered him saying. Instead of shudder upon the mention of her name, “‘they soil their underwear.’”
The Turning Point
Chastened, Warrick adjusted her performances accordingly, turning Phoebe into hell on wheels. “Then she became very nasty, very mean, very tough,” her portrayer said. And though it took some getting used to, being the character who everyone loved to hate instead of the character everyone loved, she came to realize that “sometimes you get more attention if they love to hate you.”
A Lasting Impression
Eventually, of course, Warrick was able to work humor back into her Pine Valley alter ego. As a result, to this day, All My Children fans reflect fondly on Brooke English’s busybody Aunt Phoebe, who — sorry, Erica Kane — made a scene like nobody’s business. (See what we mean below.)
While you’re here and clearly feeling nostalgic for All My Children, why not peruse the below photo gallery that takes you through the show’s entire ABC run. Until reboot Pine Valley makes it to air, it’s the next best thing to dinner at the Chateau or the Goalpost.