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BILL BELL KEEPS `Y&R' ON TOP

In the world of daytime soap operas, "The Young and the Restless" has the competition conquered.

The Emmy-winning CBS show has been the No. 1 ranked soap for eight straight years, quite a feat in television, daytime or otherwise.For those of you who are soap-challenged "Y&R," as it's called, is the one that begins each hour-long episode with the sweeping "Nadia's Theme" and once featured David Hasselhoff and Tom Selleck.

And while "Y&R" sports the usual cast of cheating, conniving titans, beefcake and vixens who live in Genoa City, there is a real-life dynasty behind the scenes: the Bell family.

At the throne is William J. Bell, a charming 69-year-old who created "Y&R" back in 1973 and remains its head writer; his wife, Lee Phillip Bell, helped create the soap and is a story consultant.

For more than a dozen years, their daughter, Lauralee Bell, has played Christine Williams, a model-turned-lawyer. Their son, Bradley Bell, is the executive producer of "Y&R's" sister soap, "The Bold and the Beautiful."

And finally there's Bill Bell Jr., the financial whiz behind Bell-Phillip Productions, Inc. Anyone sensing a touch of nepotism here?

"They all started at the bottom," Bell insists.

It blossomed into a family affair, Bell says, because "it's an exciting field to be in. It's challenging. It's an experience that's difficult to describe."

At a celebration to mark the taping of "Y&R's" 6,000th episode in October at CBS Television City, many of the actors credited Bell's longevity for the show's success.

"In other soaps you see new producers and writers every four years. Not with this one," says Peter Bergman, who plays Jack Abbott.

"We have one decisive voice," chimes in Jeanne Cooper, who has played the wealthy Katherine Chancellor since 1974.

Bell began writing daytime in 1956 when he began working with soap legend Irna Phillips, the aunt of Bell's wife, on "Guiding Light," then a 15-minute live show.

The following year, Bell joined Phillips as a writer on "As the World Turns" and remained with the series until 1966.

In 1964, Bell and Phillips created "Another World," and the following year the pair created "A Private World," prime-time's first continuing serial drama.

In 1966, Bell became head writer for "Days of Our Lives," remaining there until 1977.

In the meantime, he and his wife created "The Young and the Restless" in 1973, and another soap, "The Bold and the Beautiful," in 1987.

"It's exciting to create something from nothing," Bell says, "and then creating the characters and the relationships and casting it and seeing all these pieces come to life.

"I can't tell you how euphoric it is! These are your children, these are your people, and you have such a responsibility to them because you love them and are involved with them."

When writing sudsy lines for his characters, Bell, who still uses an electric typewriter, says: "You have to get inside the moment.

"I tell you, it's fascinating. When you're doing something long enough, strange things happen. I was in a crunch and had decided to have this new character Kurt (recently cast with Leigh McCloskey), but didn't know what I wanted to do with him.

"I just sat down and I start writing and got deep inside. In 20 minutes, I had the whole thing worked out. When you've been doing it for 40 years you have a little head start."

Is it harder for Bell to write lines for a female character?

"It doesn't make any difference, I'm bisexual," he says with a laugh.

Bell often gives his characters contemporary, social story lines. His daughter's character, for instance, has been date-raped, sexually harassed and married to a rock star. She also saw her mother die of AIDS.

"We have a duty to deal with social issues because it makes us part of the real world," Bell says. "Our viewers can learn from them and benefit from them."

The soap recently featured an incendiary tale about a married couple, in which the adulterous husband slept with an HIV-infected woman. The question remains whether the wife and child have been infected.

"AIDS had been portrayed as a gay and promiscuous disease and this took it to a different level," says actress Tonya Lee Williams, who plays the wife, Olivia. "It opened eyes about what this disease is about. This let people know this could be them."

Bell is so committed to reflecting as much of real life as possible that he has a psychiatrist read every script to make suggestions "in terms of accuracy or depth or something that we may have omitted."

And an attorney looks over any legal story lines.

While his shows may go on indefinitely, so may Bell, who is showing no signs of slowing down.

"I have another soap opera in the works," he says slyly. As expected, he refuses to say more.