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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Ashley E. Jones

In 1988 the Museum of Broadcasting held an event celebrating the career of Agnes Nixon, the pioneering writer and producer known as the queen of the modern soap opera. During remarks that the creator of One Life to Live and All My Children delivered that evening, she showered praise on two actresses whom she considered to be her most treasured stars: the mega-watt Susan Lucci, of All My Children fame, and Ellen Holly, who for 17 years played the role of Carla Benari on One Life to Live.

After explaining that ABC had wiped out episodes from her show's first 10 years in order to reuse the tapes, Nixon said:

Of all the tapes ABC didn't have, the ones I most regret are of the Carla Benari story -- a story I had begun to fear might not be told because I would not do it unless we could get the right black actress to play the part. We were only a few weeks away from the casting deadline, and I was getting worried. Then on Sunday I opened the Times to the Arts and Leisure section, and saw a beautiful face looking at me ... I knew at once Ellen was our Carla if she'd agree to play the part, which she did. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Holly, who had been dropped from One Life to Live in 1985, did not attend that night's celebration but received a 30-page transcript of the speech afterward in the mail.

"What she did not tell the museum audience, of course, is that I had been made to work 17 years for what Susan made in three months," she dryly told The Root from her condo in Westchester, N.Y. Today Holly, 81, the first African American to play a central role in the history of daytime television, claims that there were frequent slights surrounding her experience, though at the time she kept her head down.

"I was like an experiment in a petri dish, and I knew that the future of other black people finding roles on the soaps would depend, to a degree, on how my situation seemed to be working out," she said. "On the face of things it looked like I was a huge star having a grand old time. I didn't argue with that public image because I knew it would be helpful to people who, hopefully, would come after me."

Nearly three decades later, however, Holly wants to tell the rest of her story. With her 1996 book, One Life: The Autobiography of an African-American Actress, now out of print, this year she launched the website BlackStarImploding.com to expose the trials of being a television "first." In an interview with The Root, she shared her behind-the-scenes stories, what happened after life on the small screen and her thoughts on the current state of black women in Hollywood.

A TV Star Is Born

Holly received the phone call that changed her life in 1968. At the time she was a distinguished stage actress who had performed on Broadway opposite Jack Lemmon and James Earl Jones, and who headlined the New York Shakespeare Festival as Desdemona in Othello, Kate in The Taming of the Shrew and Lady Macbeth. But after 16 years in the theater world, she wanted a change.

"Theater is totally unpredictable," she explained. "You can open in a play on Broadway that you think is going to be a huge hit, and it closes within mere weeks. As a performer, you have to be able to work on camera because that's where you can make money."

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM