Ellen Holly, Groundbreaking One Life To Live Actor, Dead At 92

A television pioneer is gone. Ellen Holly, the first Black actor ever to appear on a soap opera, died at age 92 on December 7, 2023. Holly, who played Carla Gray on "One Life to Live," had been under medical care at Calvary Hospital in New York City. 

A graduate of Hunter College, Holly launched a stage career right after graduation, but found it difficult to land regular roles because she was considered too light-skinned to play Black roles. She wrote an editorial on the topic for The New York Times in 1968, which caught the attention of legendary soap producer Agnes Nixon. As Carla Benari Gray, Holly was able to address race-related issues as she tackled traditional soap story arcs like falling in love with two men at the same time. 

Holly remained on the show from 1968 to 1980, then returned for two more years in 1983. She also appeared on "The Guiding Light" and other projects, including Spike Lee's "School Daze," before retiring from acting to become a librarian in White Plains, New York.

The late star fought for POC representation throughout her career

Ellen Holly, the trailblazing actor who would go on to become the first Black actor in the soap opera genre, initially began her career on Broadway. Despite her experience in theater plays and smaller film roles, Holly faced persistent challenges due to her skin color when trying to secure roles. Her groundbreaking role on ABC's "One Life to Live" was what marked a turning point in her career as well as the soap opera realm.

In a 2012 interview with We Love Soaps, Holly revealed the arduous process women of color had to endure during auditions in the 1960s. After securing one of the limited Black roles available, they had to undergo a second audition to be approved based on the acceptable range of their blackness for the camera. Holly explained, "The TV and film industry preferred to use the central part of the [color] spectrum." She added, "The one thing that we will not do in real life ("pass" for white) is the only thing they will let us play on a camera."

Throughout her career, Holly was vocal about the issue. According to the Journal of Popular Film and Television, her letter to The New York Times caught the attention of Agnes Nixon, the creator of "One Life to Live," who subsequently created a role just for Holly. This move played a pivotal role in increasing the representation of people of color in soap operas, as Holly's character garnered unprecedented attention for the ABC soap.