Memoirs of a Black Soap Star

In the '60s, Ellen Holly broke ground on-screen, but behind the scenes life was less glamorous.

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Unfortunately, this posed a problem for Holly. Because her light skin read as "white" in photographs, she was largely uncastable where a camera was concerned. "The industry looked at me and said, 'We can't cast you opposite a white man because you're black. We can't cast you opposite a black man because you photograph like white and it would look like an interracial couple.' "

But when ABC called, asking if she was interested in auditioning for a new soap opera called One Life to Live, the role seemed tailor-made for her. The character of Carla Benari was a black actress who was unable to get work in black roles. In Carla's hunger to become a star, she passed for white -- and lived to regret it. Holly got the part.

"When I first got the role, Agnes Nixon and I sat down for hours, and we talked endlessly about barriers that had been difficult to overcome for actors who looked like me," she said. "All of that was written into the story, and I felt I was illuminating some of those barriers."

While Holly was not the first African American to play a recurring role on daytime television -- before her, actress Micki Grant had played a secretary on Another World -- she was the first black soap star. In Carla's riveting storyline, she was a mystery woman who'd come to town and was immediately pursued by two gorgeous men, one black and one white. "I'd go into a day's work and feel like I'd died and gone to heaven," Holly remembers with a hearty laugh.

The breakthrough role made a splash in the media, garnering unheard-of publicity for the new soap opera. But perhaps the most influential people who paid heed were black television viewers, who followed the show in droves. African Americans were approximately 12 percent of the population in the late '60s, but they accounted for 25 percent of One Life to Live viewers. The ratings were so dramatic that the network would eventually add black storylines to its other daytime shows to maintain their new audience.

"When Lillian Hayman, the actress who played my mother, and I would go to events, or even be stopped on the street by people, we would find ourselves absolutely lionized," said Holly. "We were amazed at how many black people were watching the show. And they weren't necessarily housewives staying at home. They were professional people who would set aside an hour at work to watch it, and college students who would schedule classes around it."

For the first two years, Holly had a fabulous time on set. Then, she says, almost overnight, things took a different turn.

Things Fall Apart

The first thing to change was her storyline. While Holly's white counterparts would go on to have careers that spanned multiple decades -- constantly getting married and divorced, amid other endless dramas -- Carla's plot suddenly fizzled out.

"I was paired with an older, balding character actor in a platonic relationship, and he was a congressman who spent most of his time in Washington," she said. "Lillian and I were turned into satellites who revolved around the white characters. We would sit at the kitchen table and drink coffee and talk about the white storylines so that people could be kept up with them."