Ellen Holly, The First Black Actor To Lead A Daytime Soap Opera With ‘One Life To Live’, Has Died

Ellen Holly, The First Black Actor To Lead A Daytime Soap Opera With ‘One Life To Live’, Has Died | Photo: ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images
Ellen Holly, The First Black Actor To Lead A Daytime Soap Opera With ‘One Life To Live’, Has Died | Photo: ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images
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Ellen Holly, an inspiring actress who broke barriers as the first Black actor to have a starring role in the daytime soap opera One Life to Live, died Wednesday at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, New York. She was 92.

According to Entertainment Weekly, Holly’s publicist, Cheryl L. Duncan, confirmed her death to the outlet.

Holly was born on Jan. 16, 1931, in New York City. She began her career on Broadway in 1956 with the adaptation of Too Late the Phalarope. She later starred in several other productions, including Face of a Hero, Tiger Tiger Burning Bright and A Hand Is on the Gate. 

She also made her small screen debut in The Big Story, a crime drama series that ran for eight seasons on NBC radio. From there, Holly had roles in The Nurses and Dr. Kildare but struggled to find consistent work as a light-skinned Black woman. 

Variety reported that Holly wrote an opinion piece, “How Black Do You Need To Be?” in The New York Times in 1968, describing her experiences landing acting roles as a light-skinned Black actress. Her words targeting Hollywood and the entertainment industry caught the attention of One Life to Live creator Agnes Nixon.

The producer was impressed with her letter and later cast Holly in a starring role as Carla Gray, a light-skinned Black woman caught in a love triangle between two doctors: one Black and the other white. Holly remained on the long-running series through 1980 before returning in 1983 and leaving again in 1985, per Variety.

Years later, Holly recounted her experience on One Life to Live in her autobiography, One Life: The Autobiography of an African American Actress, in 1996. In the book, she revealed how she and other Black actors were underpaid and treated poorly by show executives.

After her stint on One Life to Live, Holly appeared in The Guiding Light, In the Heat of the Night, 10,000 Black Men Named George and Spike Lee’s School Daze. In the 1990s, she became a White Plains Public Library librarian. 

Holly is survived by her grand nieces, cousins and other family members close to the beloved actor.