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Ellen Holly, Pioneering ‘One Life to Live’ Star, Dies at 92

Ellen Holly, Pioneering ‘One Life to Live’ Star, Dies at 92

Ellen Holly, known for her iconic role as Carla on ABC’s One Life to Live, passed away Wednesday at the age of 92. She made history as the first Black actress to achieve stardom on a daytime soap opera. Holly passed away peacefully in her sleep at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, as confirmed by publicist Cheryl L. Duncan according to People.

Holly, a member of The Actors Studio, showcased her remarkable talent in Shakespearean plays under the guidance of Joseph Papp. She had the privilege of being mentored by the same woman who discovered iconic actresses Julie Harris and Kim Stanley. Holly’s Broadway career spanned four notable appearances, commencing with her unforgettable portrayal as the female lead in the acclaimed 1956 production of Too Late the Phalarope.

She also made appearances in several films, including 1959’s Take a Giant Step, which starred Johnny Nash, Estelle Hemsley, and Ruby Dee. She also starred in 1988’s School Daze, directed by Spike Lee.

Ellen Holly Penned an Essay Published by the New York Times About Her Struggles as an Actress

Despite her abundant talents, Holly did not work as frequently as she should have. As a light-skinned African American, she faced challenges in being hired for roles specifically seeking a “Black actress.”

Holly said that actresses that had her features “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,’” Holly told website We Love Soaps in 2012. “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, Holly wrote to The New York Times about her situation. The newspaper published a portion of her six-page letter on its op-ed pages with the headline, “How Black Do You Have to Be?”

Breaking New Ground on ‘One Life to Live’

Agnes Nixon, the creator of the soap opera One Life to Live, came across the piece. She soon signed Holly to a one-year contract for $300 a week. Holly was cast as Carla Benari, an intriguing character with a mysterious past. She appeared to be a white woman but was described by Holly as an “exotic somebody.” While being treated by a white doctor (Robert Milli) for a nervous breakdown, Carla finds herself drawn to a Black intern (Peter De Anda), creating a complex and captivating storyline.

Holly gained massive ratings for her role in One Life to Live, especially resonating with Black viewers. However, she faced challenges with her salary, storylines, and reduced workload, leading her to quit the show in 1980. Although she made a comeback in 1983 with a pay raise, then-producer Paul Rauch informed her that her contract would not be renewed when it expired in ’85.

Jean Arley invited Carla to return to One Live to Live as an assistant district attorney after completing law school. However, under Rauch’s leadership, Carla faced criticism about her hair length and was forced to take voice lessons. Eventually, both Carla and Hellman’s characters were written off the show and moved to Arizona.

Holly witnessed the historic 1963 March on Washington. She said she stood just 10 feet behind Martin Luther King Jr. during his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Her impact extended beyond this momentous occasion. She contributed to the creation of the groundbreaking 1975 album Roses and Revolutions. The record combined spoken word and songs to explore the struggles of the Black community. This album also featured renowned artists like Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, and Nancy Wilson.

In 1996, she wrote an autobiography, One Life: The Autobiography of an African American Actress. Holly recounted her encounters on the soap opera and shared the romance she experienced with the renowned singer-actor, Harry Belafonte.

In 1986, Holly started working at a library in White Plains, New York, earning $36,000 annually. She also played a judge on the CBS soap Guiding Light and made appearances on the NBC series In the Heat of the Night. In 2002, she starred in a Showtime telefilm called 10,000 Black Men Named George.