ShowsEllen Holly, First Black Actress on Daytime TV and One Life to...

Ellen Holly, First Black Actress on Daytime TV and One Life to Live Star, Passes Away

Ellen Holly, a trailblazer in the world of daytime soap operas, has passed away. The first Black actor to secure a leading role on a daytime soap, she died peacefully in her sleep. The place was Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, and it was a Wednesday. She was 92 years old.

Holly joined ABC‘s “One Life to Live” in 1968. She played the role of Carla Benari, an actress with seemingly Italian heritage. Her character found romance with Jim Craig, a white doctor. The character was first played by Robert Milli and then by Nat Polen.

A twist in the tale revealed that Carla Benari was actually Carla Gray. She was an African-American passing as white. She was also the daughter of Llanview Hospital housekeeping boss Sadie Gray. Lillian Hayman, an original cast member of “OLTL”, played Sadie Gray.

Agnes Nixon, the legendary daytime-TV producer, personally chose Holly for the role. Nixon had read an opinion piece by Holly in the New York Times titled “How Black Do You Have To Be?”. The piece discussed the challenges light-skinned Black women face in finding acting roles.

Holly’s casting was a significant moment in the history of soaps. She was the first lead Black actress, and her casting came during the racially divisive 1960s. Her storyline in “OLTL” saw Carla grappling with her racial identity, at her mother’s insistence. She was caught in a love triangle with two doctors — one white, the other Black. This storyline greatly increased the viewership of the then months-old soap opera.

Holly left “OLTL” in 1980, only to return from 1983-85. In her later years, she spoke out about being underpaid and other mistreatment. She claimed that she and some of her fellow Black cast mates experienced this from “OLTL” executives, despite their contributions to the show’s success.

Holly’s acting career began on the stages of New York City and Boston. She made her Broadway debut in “Too Late the Phalarope” in 1956. She starred in Broadway productions like “Face of a Hero”, “Tiger Tiger Burning Bright”, and “A Hand is on the Gate”. From 1958 to 1973, she led productions of numerous Joseph Papp New York Shakespeare Festival productions. She worked with luminaries like Roscoe Lee Browne, James Earl Jones, Jack Lemmon, Barry Sullivan, and Cicely Tyson.

Her first roles on TV included appearances on “The Big Story” (in 1957), “The Defenders” (1963), “Sam Benedict” (1963), “Dr. Kildare” (1964), and “The Doctors and the Nurses” (1963).

After her runs on “OLTL”, Holly recurred as a judge on “Guiding Light” (from 1988 to 1993). She appeared in multiple episodes of NBC‘s “In the Heat of the Night” adaptation. She also co-starred in the TV-movie “10,000 Black Men Named George”, alongside Andre Braugher and Mario Van Peebles.

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