Daytime trailblazer, One Life to Live star Ellen Holly has passed away at 92

Posted Thursday, December 07, 2023 11:18:56 AM
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One Life to Live's Ellen Holly has passed away. The daytime legend and trailblazer was the first Black woman to be cast in a leading role on a soap opera, and she helped push boundaries with a controversial kiss that forced viewers to examine their own prejudices.

One Life to Live fans are mourning the death of Ellen Holly, who passed away on December 5 at the age of 92. Holly's cousin Grant Shipp shared the sad news in a post on Facebook. "Remembering my cousin Ellen Holly this morning, who passed last night. She was a pioneer in day time television. Starring on One Life to live for 20 years. Playing Lawrence Fishburns mother on the show. She appeared in several movies, and performed on stage with the greatest black actors of her generation. Sidney Poitier, Harry Beafonte, Cicely Tyson, Robert Hooks, James Earl Jones to name a few. You had One Life to Live and it was amazing Life. You were simply one of the best. Now you know the secret. God rest your soul 🙏🏽," Shipp posted.

Born January 16, 1932, in New York City, Holly's career started out on the stage in the1956 production of Too Late the Phalarope. She also appeared in Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright as Cille, and A Hand Is on the Gate. During this time, Holly had also branched out into television and film, landing her first role on the small screen in 1957 inThe Big Story as Betty. Other television appearances included Take A Giant Step and The Defenders.

But it was daytime television that made Holly a household name. Holly was the first Black actress to be cast in a lead role in daytime television when she landed the role of Carla Gray on OLTL in 1968. However, she didn't exactly audition for the role, at least not in the traditional sense. OLTL's creator, Agnes Nixon, first took notice of Holly when Holly penned a letter to the editor of the Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times about life as a light-skinned African American and the struggles that she faced. The letter inspired Nixon to create the role for Holly, but it was not without controversy.

Initially, Holly appeared on the ABC soap as Carla Benari, an actress of Italian American heritage who became engaged to a white doctor. That was, until a handsome Black doctor entered the picture, and a passionate kiss set off a firestorm that lit up the ABC switchboards with outraged viewers who were not happy about an "interracial" kiss. Enter Lillian Hayman as Sadie Grey -- Carla's Black mother -- and the revelation that Carla (whose real name was Clara) had been passing herself off as white because of the discrimination that she would have faced as a Black woman. It was a powerful storyline that forced viewers to examine their own preconceived notions and prejudices.

In an interview with SoapHub, Holly shared, "Agnes wanted to take the viewers and have them become involved with a character believing that character to be one thing." The goal had been to force the viewers to examine their own feelings and personal biases when their views were challenged by the revelation of a character's true identity. The love triangle was a hit with viewers and garnered the attention of mainstream media. It also quickly developed a large Black fanbase for the show.

Despite Holly's contribution to the daytime genre, the actress revealed in her memoir -- One Life: The Autobiography of an African American Actress -- that she had been consistently denied salary commensurate with her white peers, and she had faced overt hostility from the show's new executive producer Paul Rauch. In 1985, she was unceremoniously fired from the show when she alleged that she'd been told that she "was not worth keeping."

After daytime, Holly remained active, appearing in The Heat of the Night and Spencer: For Hire, and even returning to daytime as Judge Francis Collier on Guiding Light. Holly also reunited with her OLTL son Laurence Fishburne in 1988's School Daze. Her final role on the small screen was in 10,000 Black Men Named George, starring Andre Braugher and Mario Van Peeples, as Selena Frey.

Holly never married or had children. In her memoir, she revealed that she'd been in a relationship with Harry Belafonte. Her other notable romance was with her OLTL co-star Roger Hill, who played Alex Lowndes from 1983 to 1985.

Want to offer your condolences and share your memories of Ellen Holly? Do you remember the Carla storyline and the reaction that you had to it? We want to hear from you -- so drop your comments in the Comments section below, tweet about it on Twitter, share it on Facebook, or chat about it on our Message Boards.

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