Memoirs of a Black Soap Star

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

Ashley E. Jones

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.”

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.