Her death was announced in a statement by her family, which did not cite a cause.
Few soaps have entertained, enchanted and even educated viewers like those developed by Mrs. Bell and her husband, William J. Bell, who together created “The Young and the Restless” and its sister show, “The Bold and the Beautiful.” Reaching millions of viewers in countries around the world, both programs examined issues like teenage pregnancy, alcoholism, homelessness and incest — topics that Mrs. Bell had previously explored as the host of television specials and an afternoon talk show.
As a broadcaster and journalist, Mrs. Bell was something like the first lady of the Chicago airwaves. But she fell into TV only by chance, after studying microbiology at Northwestern University and returning to her family’s suburban flower shop, where she tended to bouquets while applying for a social work position.
Asked to help with a news segment on floral arrangements, she was apparently as artful as the flowers she put together. The TV station hired her, and she was soon working as an announcer, “weather girl” and de facto home economics correspondent. Within six months, by her count, she had her own talk show and was on her way to becoming “that wholesomely beautiful blonde darling of television,” as the Chicago Tribune called her in 1958.
Mrs. Bell went on to interview politicians Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, actors Judy Garland and Clint Eastwood, and musicians such as the Beatles and Rolling Stones. “The Lee Phillip Show,” which changed its name a handful of times, aired until 1986 on Chicago’s CBS affiliate, and was later hailed as a forerunner to shows hosted by Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey.
“If you were to make a list of the defining characters in television’s infancy, Lee Phillip would be near the top,” Bruce DuMont, a former producer on Mrs. Bell’s show and founder of Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast Communications, told a Northwestern interviewer in 2007. “She paved the way for women to have a significant role in television. What she was doing in Chicago was in the forefront of women’s expanding role in broadcast nationwide.”
As both host and producer, Mrs. Bell effectively had free rein to cover whatever she liked, reporting on prison conditions as well as the lives of runaway children. She also took time away from her show to host specials such as “The Rape of Paulette” (1973), in which she interviewed rape victims and documented the failings of police and prosecutors who sought to bring the women’s attackers to justice.
The program won an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for broadcast journalism and was released the same year that Mrs. Bell and her husband launched “The Young and the Restless,” centered on a pair of dueling families in the Midwest.
William Bell had by then abandoned an advertising career to work as a soap opera screenwriter, an ambition that stretched back to his boyhood love of Depression-era radio dramas. He wrote for soap opera queen Irna Phillips on “Guiding Light” and “As the World Turns” before becoming head writer on “Days of Our Lives” — a program that he led to national prominence just as he and his wife “began to talk about merging our two worlds,” as she put it.
“We wanted to tell stories that made a difference,” Mrs. Bell told the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in 2007, before accepting a lifetime achievement award. “I did a special on breast cancer and mastectomies, and Bill became very interested in the medical issues women and children faced, and then he wove it into his fictional characters’ lives.”
Their first collaboration, “The Young and the Restless,” was a youth-oriented CBS program that distinguished itself with couture clothing, sexual intrigue and emotionally tortured male characters, including those played by future prime-time stars David Hasselhoff and Tom Selleck. The show earned Mrs. Bell a share of a Daytime Emmy Award in 1975 and has reigned atop the soap opera charts for more than three decades, closely followed in the ratings by “The Bold and the Beautiful.”
Set at a glamorous Los Angeles fashion house, “The Bold and the Beautiful” premiered in 1987 and is still independently produced by Bell-Phillip Television Productions, with Mrs. Bell receiving an executive producer credit in the show’s early years. As with “The Young and the Restless,” she left the writing to her husband but suggested story lines that reflected her interest in issues like rape and HIV/AIDS.
If her family’s shows were not exactly wholesome, Mrs. Bell nonetheless insisted that they were essentially little different from a program like “Sesame Street.” “We do the very same thing, don’t we, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch and the daytime dramas,” she told the television academy. “We reach out to people through our stories, through our words and examples. And hopefully, at the end of the day, we’ve touched someone’s life in a better way, and helped them.”
The second of three children, Loreley June Phillip was born in Chicago on June 9, 1928, and raised in Riverside, Ill., where she sometimes stayed up late at night to help her florist parents fill corsage orders during World War II. She was reportedly named for a French flower but had long used the given name Lee.
Mrs. Bell, who received her bachelor’s degree in 1950, was still planning for a career in social work when she began making regular television appearances. On the day that the Cook County welfare office called to offer her a job, she received another call from what is now WBBM-TV: The station’s lead female host, Lucky North, was about to vacation in Japan, and they needed Mrs. Bell to step in as a substitute.
“I moved from being her temporary replacement into hosting my own talk show,” Mrs. Bell later said. “I must thank Lucky for my big break.”
In 1954, she married William Bell. They remained in Chicago until launching “The Bold and the Beautiful” on the West Coast, where they established what the Los Angeles Times dubbed “the first family of soaps.”
Their son William James Bell is president of the family production company and married to Maria Arena Bell, former head writer and executive producer of “The Young and the Restless”; another son, Bradley Phillip Bell, is executive producer and head writer of “The Bold and the Beautiful”; and their daughter, Lauralee Bell Martin, is an actress who has appeared on “The Young and the Restless” and “The Bold and the Beautiful.”
In addition to her three children, Mrs. Bell is survived by a brother and eight grandchildren. Her husband died in 2005 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease, and Mrs. Bell later championed research into the illness.
As she had with so many other health and social issues, she said she wanted to incorporate Alzheimer’s disease into one of her soaps. That proved a difficult task for a format that thrives on surprising turnarounds, improbable twists and miraculous recoveries. As she put it, “The problem with weaving it into [the] story . . . is that right now there is no cure.”
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