Ellen Holly, Pioneering Black Actress on ‘One Life to Live,’ Dies at 92

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Ellen Holly, whose long-running turn as Carla on ABC’s One Life to Live made her the first Black actress to gain stardom on a daytime soap opera, has died. She was 92.  

Holly died in her sleep Wednesday at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, publicist Cheryl L. Duncan announced.

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A member of The Actors Studio who did Shakespeare for Joseph Papp and was mentored by the same woman who discovered Julie Harris and Kim Stanley, Holly appeared four times on Broadway, beginning with her acclaimed performance in 1956 as the female lead in Too Late the Phalarope.

She appeared in a handful of films as well, from Take a Giant Step (1959), starring Johnny Nash, Estelle Hemsley and Ruby Dee, to School Daze (1988), directed by Spike Lee.

Holly, however, did not work as often as her talents suggested she should have, because as a light-skinned African American, she had difficulty being hired for roles calling for “a Black actress,” she said.

She and others who looked like her “were having our problems because we’re so proud of being Black actresses that we don’t want to pass for white: we’re insisting, ‘We are Black actresses, use us as what we are,'” she said in a 2012 interview for the website We Love Soaps.

“The one thing that we will not do in real life — pass for white — is the only thing they will let us play on camera. That’s how your whole life and career become ironic from the very outset.”

In September 1968, after Holly had written to The New York Times about her situation, the newspaper ran a portion of her six-page letter on its op-ed pages under the headline, “How Black Do You Have to Be?”

One Life to Live creator Agnes Nixon saw the piece, and soon Holly was signed to a one-year contract for $300 a week to portray Carla Benari, an apparent white woman — Holly called her an “exotic somebody” — with a mysterious past. While a white doctor (Robert Milli) falls for her as he’s treating her for a nervous breakdown, she’s attracted to a Black intern (Peter De Anda).

“A white woman falling in love with a Black man [in the 1960s], people started looking at the soap opera and said, ‘This is something new, we better see where this is going!'” Holly said in a 2018 conversation for the TV Academy Foundation website The Interviews. Meanwhile, the relationship generated a great deal of hate mail and angry calls from viewers, and a station in Texas dropped the show.

About five months later (at the end of a Friday episode, of course), Carla in a chance encounter comes face to face with Sadie Gray (Lillian Hayman), a Black woman who heads housekeeping at Llanview Hospital. “Sadie looks at me and says, ‘Clara!” Holly recalled. “And I say, ‘Mama!’ Cut to black.”

“People were genuinely surprised,” Holly wrote in a 1969 article for the Times. “Most found it absorbing. Others were fascinated by the way all the pieces fit. There were, of course, the inevitable ones who found it hard to take. Now that I was revealed to be Black, in retrospect they found it OK that I had kissed the Black doctor but intolerable that I had kissed and been engaged to the white one.”

In Carla’s backstory, she had been an actress who couldn’t find work and started passing for white, which she regretted. Nixon allowed Holly “to have input into how this character was going to be handled,” she said. “I went into everything about ‘the box’ in which I worked.”

Holly generated huge ratings for One Life to Life — especially among Black viewers — but in the ensuing years, she had problems with her salary, storylines and reduced workload and quit the show in 1980. She returned in 1983 to a pay raise, only to be told by then-producer Paul Rauch that when her contract was over in ’85, she would not be renewed, she said.

“I feel as if I was hired as a temporary gimmick to rocket-boost a payload of white stars into orbit. Basically, that’s what I was used as. And that’s how it worked out,” she said in another 2012 interview.

Ellen Virginia Holly was born in Queens on Jan. 16, 1931. Her father, William, played the violin and worked as a chemical engineer, and her mother, Grace, taught school to orphans.

As a senior at Hunter College, she designed the set for a production of J.B. Priestley’s Music at Night. That caught the attention of faculty member Charlotte Perry, who invited Holly to attend a summer performing arts school and camp in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

Holly took acting classes, and “Ms. Perry got it in her head that I was not just a good actress, she thought I was a major American actress,” she recalled. “I was initially unhinged by it. It was such an enormous thing to live up to; she was famous for discovering Julie Harris and Kim Stanley.

“But I decided, why not? All right, disappoint her. Give yourself the right to fail. I was going to go ahead with this thing wherever it took me.”

Back at Hunter College, Holly starred in such plays as Elektra and The Climate of Eden and gained experience with a Greenwich Village theater company before auditioning for the role of Stephanie, a South African bush girl who has a sexual relationship with a white policeman (Barry Sullivan), in Too Late the Phalarope, an adaptation of a novel by Alan Paton (Cry, the Beloved Country).

She said the producers liked her but thought she was too light-skinned for the part, so she had her dad create make-up for her that made her “look mahogany … I could get on the subway and sit next to you, and you did not have a clue that that was not my real color.

“I came back in my father’s make-up, and to this day I can see the two producers coming up to me and saying, both of them with their hands out, ‘Congratulations, you’re our Stephanie.'”

In his review for the New York Herald-Tribune, Walter Kerr wrote that “Holly’s arrogantly sensuous native girl, proud of her wiles and stubbornly honest about her own corruption, is perfect playing,” but the expensive drama closed after just 36 performances in November 1956. She considered that role, however, the highlight of her career.

Holly accepted an invitation to join The Actors Studio (Jane Fonda, Steve McQueen and Shelley Winters were there at the time) and appeared on Broadway with Jack Lemmon in Face of a Hero in 1960, with Cicely Tyson in Josh Logan’s Tiger Tiger Burning Bright in 1962-63 and with Tyson and James Earl Jones in A Hand Is on the Gate in 1966.

When she sent her letter to the Times — “We are told that we are not Black enough, that we look too white. But we are Black. It is enough for us, why isn’t it enough for you?” she wrote — a frustrated Holly was 37 and planning to quit acting to pursue her masters at Columbia University with a goal of becoming a librarian at a historically Black college.

She was shocked to learn “that I had just become, in quotes, the first Black star in a central role in the history of daytime television” when she boarded One Life to Live.

After quitting the soap, one of the few acting jobs she could get was playing a woman who fantasizes that she’s Mexican actress Dolores del Río in Carlos Fuentes’ Orchids in the Moonlight, staged at Harvard in 1982.

Producer Jean Arley asked her to come back to One Live to Live, and Carla returned as an assistant district attorney (she had attended law school while she was away). But Arley was replaced by Rauch, and he made things miserable for her, she said, forcing her to take voice lessons and criticizing the length of her hair. She and Hellman were written off the show, with their characters moving to Arizona.

Holly wrote about her experiences on the soap — and a romance she had with singer-actor Harry Belafonte — in her 1996 autobiography, One Life: The Autobiography of an African American Actress.

In 1986, Holly went to work for a library in White Plains, New York, for $36,000 a year, she said. She also played a judge on the CBS soap Guiding Light and appeared on the NBC series In the Heat of the Night and in a 2002 Showtime telefilm, 10,000 Black Men Named George.

Holly attended the 1963 March on Washington — she said she was 10 feet behind Martin Luther King Jr. during his “I Have a Dream” speech — and contributed to Roses and Revolutions, a 1975 album of spoken word and songs about the Black struggle that also featured Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Leslie Uggams and Nancy Wilson.

Survivors include her grand-nieces, Alexa and Ashley, and their father, Xavier; and her first cousins, Wanda, Julie, Carolyn and Clinton. Donations in her memory may be made to The Obama Presidential Center or St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

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