David Susskind once told Jacqueline Babbin, “Jackie, next to me you’re the best TV producer I know.” The secret of her success? “I just had to get together the best possible team.” Jacqueline Babbin’s development into a top producer was based, by her own admission, on chance and personality traits (including wit and tenacity) that made her an inbred maverick. She began in 1954 as a script editor at Susskind’s company, Talent Associates, and rose quickly through the ranks. Her impressive prime-time track record included cowriting (with Audrey Gellen) several distinguished television adaptations of stage plays—among them The Browning Version, Ethan Frome, and Billy Budd—and producing such prestigious series as Armstrong Circle Theater and The DuPont Show of the Month as well as television specials including Sybil and Ceremonies in Dark Old Men. Throughout her career she worked on a variety of programs, so it came as no surprise when late in her career, Babbin signed on to produce two daytime soap operas (All My Children and Loving) and—with characteristic gusto—improved the ratings by revamping the characters and story lines.
Jacqueline Babbin grew up in Greenwich Village in New York City, the only child of a physician with a practice on the Lower East Side. Her parents were intellectually inclined, and at an early age, Babbin became an avid reader. She entered high school at the age of eleven and began her studies at Smith College at fifteen. Upon graduating from Smith in 1941, she worked briefly at a large chemical company (as a librarian) and at a Chicago mail-order house. She returned to New York in 1943 to work as an assistant to the renowned literary agent Audrey Wood, whose stable of clients included Tennessee Williams. Babbin also took a year’s sabbatical in Europe—where she wrote two novels that were never published—and worked as an assistant to the Broadway producer Irene Mayer Selznick on dramas, including The Chalk Garden, Flight Into Egypt, and A Streetcar Named Desire. She was also briefly married, in the 1940s, to a Warner Bros. executive.
In 1954 Babbin began her television career at David Susskind’s production company Talent Associates, starting out as a script editor on programs including Justice and Armstrong Circle Theatre and subsequently working as a producer of Armstrong Circle Theatre and script supervisor of The DuPont Show of the Month and other specials. She formed a successful writing partnership with Audrey Gellen, whom Babbin had initially hired to work at Talent Associates as a stenographer. (“The worst stenographer ever,” Babbin later said about Gellen; but she immediately recognized the younger woman’s literary talents.) The two women collaborated on several adaptations of stage plays, including Harvey, The Browning Version, Ethan Frome, The Member of the Wedding, Our Town, and Billy Budd.
In approaching a script, Babbin and Gellen read the original story or play independently and did their own research, becoming thoroughly immersed in the subject matter at hand; in the case of Billy Budd, “We had to find out the difference between a yardarm and a lanyard before we could begin writing the script,” said Gellen.
The two women tried to preserve the authors’ intentions and integrity by following a simple two-word motto: “Think McCullers” (in the case of The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers) or “Think Rattigan” (when the play in question was The Browning Version by Terence Rattigan). They also familiarized themselves with the mechanical problems of bringing a stage work to the small screen: “An adapter should know technical problems, camera angles, set arrangements,” Babbin told a reporter from the New York Times in 1963. “We’re basically producers and editors.”
In 1961 Susskind and Babbin produced a critically acclaimed but short-lived dramatic anthology entitled Way Out, a series of macabre stories by Roald Dahl that was excellently cast, drawing from a rich pool of New York stage actors. They also continued their collaboration throughout the decade as producers on TV specials, including Hedda Gabler (1963) with Ingrid Bergman and Michael Redgrave (a coproduction of CBS and the BBC) and The Crucible (1967) with George C. Scott, Colleen Dewhurst, and Fritz Weaver.
In 1968 Babbin formed her own production company, Clovis. Under its auspices, she produced original dramas for kids on the 1969 series CBS Children’s Hour and won a Peabody Award for one of its installments, “J.T.”—a poignant story of a boy in Harlem and his cat. In 1975 Babbin produced an acclaimed adaptation of the Lonne Elder III play Ceremonies in Dark Old Men for ABC, as well as Beacon Hill, a CBS series about a wealthy Boston family and its servants—an American counterpart to the wildly successful British series Upstairs, Downstairs. Beacon Hill had a fine cast (including George Rose, Beatrice Straight, Edward Herrmann, and Nancy Marchand) but failed to find its audience and folded after eleven episodes. In 1976 Babbin was the producer of the Emmy Award–winning drama Sybil, starring Sally Field as a woman with multiple personalities and Joanne Woodward as her sympathetic doctor.
In 1979 Babbin was named vice president, novels for television and miniseries, ABC Entertainment, supervising the production of such blockbuster television miniseries as Masada, Inside the Third Reich, and The Winds of War. “In order for a miniseries to be successful in today’s market,” said Babbin in a 1980 New York Times interview, “it has to have a high concept and a high theme. The subject matter has to be something special. There has to be a reason to disrupt the regular programming.”
Babbin jumped at the chance to move back to Manhattan in 1982 when she received an offer from Agnes Nixon to produce All My Children. Throughout her life, she preferred working in New York to being “laid back” in California. “I find the challenge of doing a daily show very exciting,” Babbin said. She helped enliven the tired soap opera formula with fast-moving stories of adventure and international intrigue. At a time when her contemporaries were winding down their careers, she also relished the administrative duties of working on a daily drama—putting in ten- and twelve-hour days while supervising a cast of 35 contract actors and nearly 150 others, reading outlines, conferring with the writers and the casting director, consulting on costume and set designs, and coming up with new concepts for the program. Though Babbin’s previous productions were for the most part highbrow in nature, she moved quite easily between the worlds of high and low culture and viewed soap operas as a “fabulous training ground for actors.” During her tenure at All My Children, set in the fictional town of Pine Valley, Babbin signed on guest stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Carol Burnett and also displayed a bit of nepotism, casting her pet cat, Bonkers, on several episodes of the show.
After her stint at All My Children ended in 1986, Babbin began to work on a series of novels about (what else?) the television industry. But in 1990, she was asked to come back to ABC for one year as executive producer of the low-ranked soap Loving (another series created by Agnes Nixon). Babbin overhauled the show by bringing it up to date to the “Bush ’90s.”
After retiring, Babbin lived in Kent, Connecticut, and had two novels published, Prime Time Corpse and Bloody Soaps. She was working on a third novel, Bloody Networks, at the time of her death in 2001.
Throughout her long career, Babbin worked comfortably within a male-dominated industry, but always made a practice of hiring and promoting women. “[Women] have an eye for detail, they don’t bother jockeying for position, they cut through the nonsense,” Babbin told the New York Times in 1973. “When I started out, I worked for two fantastic women, Audrey Woods and Irene Selznick. I learned so much from them. Women should help each other.”
“I’ve never thought of it as a conflict, a man-versus-woman kind of thing,” Babbin said of her career. “[I] Just did my work. It seems people want a revolution, but it just takes time."