OLTL Vet Ellen Holly, Daytime-TV’s First Black Leading Actor, Dead at 92

Ellen Holly, the first Black actor to have a leading role on a daytime soap opera, died peacefully in her sleep on Wednesday at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx. She was 92.

Photo by Ashley E. Jones
Photo by Ashley E. Jones

Holly joined ABC’s One Life to Live in 1968, in the role of Carla Benari, an actress of seemingly Italian heritage who found romance with Jim Craig, a white doctor (played by Robert Milli and then Nat Polen). It eventually came out that Carla Benari was actually Carla Gray, an African-American passing as white –and the daughter of Llanview Hospital housekeeping boss Sadie Gray (played by original OLTL cast member Lillian Hayman).

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Holly had been personally chosen for the role by Agnes Nixon, after the legendary daytime-TV producer saw a New York Times opinion piece that Holly wrote called “How Black Do You Have To Be?” about the difficulty that light-skinned Black women have finding acting roles.

Holly’s casting and emergence as soaps’ first lead Black actress was a watershed moment, coming as it did during the racially divisive 1960s. Her OLTL storyline saw Carla coming to terms with her racial identity, at her mother’s behest, and enter into a love triangle with two doctors — one white, the other Black — all of which helped explode viewership of the months-old soap opera.

Holly left the ABC sudser in 1980, then returned from 1983-85. In later years, she spoke out about being underpaid and other mistreatment she claimed she and some of her fellow Black cast mates received from OLTL executives, despite their contributions to the show’s success.

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Holly began her acting career on New York City and Boston stages, making her Broadway debut in Too Late the Phalarope in 1956 and starring in the Broadway productions 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. Throughout her years in the theater, she worked opposite such luminaries as Roscoe Lee Browne, James Earl Jones, Jack Lemmon, Barry Sullivan and Cicely Tyson.

Holly’s 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).

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

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