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Remembering Ellen Holly, The First Black Person To Have A Lead Role In TV Soap Opera

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by Paulina Isaac

December 14, 2023

Ellen Holly was a pioneer!

The Black actress, known for her role as Carla Benari on ABC’s One Life to Live, has passed away at the age of 92. Holly will be remembered as the first Black actress to rise to fame on a daytime soap opera. She passed away in her sleep on Wednesday, Dec. 6th, at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, publicist Cheryl L. Duncan announced, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

In addition to her time spent on One Life to Live, the late actress appeared on Broadway four times, starting with her acclaimed performance in 1956 as the female lead in Too Late the Phalarope. She also appeared in films, like Take a Giant Step (1959), starring Johnny Nash, Estelle Hemsley, and Ruby Dee; and School Daze (1988), which was directed by Spike Lee.

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Despite her talent, she had trouble booking consistent work because of the fairness of her skin. It was difficult for her to land roles that asked for a Black actress. She spoke about this experience in a 2012 interview for the website We Love Soaps. She and other fair-skinned Black actresses “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 continued, “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.”

Ultimately, she was chosen for her role on One Life to Live because television producer Agnes Nixon saw a New York Times opinion piece that Holly wrote, called “How Black Do You Have To Be?” about the difficulty of finding roles as a fair-skinned Black woman. She was signed to a one-year contract for $300 a week to portray Carla Benari, an apparent white woman with a mysterious past.

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“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. However, the TV relationship also received backlash, and a station in Texas even dropped the show. About five months later on the show, Carla sees Sadie Gray (Lillian Hayman), a Black woman who is in charge of housekeeping at Llanview Hospital. “Sadie looks at me and says, ‘Clara!” Holly remembered. “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.”

Holly generated huge ratings for One Life to Life, especially among Black viewers, but faced problems with her salary, storylines, and reduced workload. After quitting the show in 1980, she returned in 1983 to a pay raise and remained until her contract ended in 1985. She went on to write a 1996 autobiography, One Life: The Autobiography of an African American Actress.

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She is survived by her grand-nieces, Alexa and Ashley, and their father, Xavier, and her first cousins, Wanda, Julie, Carolyn, and Clinton. Donations in her honor can be made to The Obama Presidential Center or St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Cover photo: Remembering Ellen Holly, The First Black Person To Have A Lead Role In TV Soap Opera/ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images

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