Memoirs of a Black Soap Star
In the '60s, Ellen Holly broke ground on-screen, but behind the scenes life was less glamorous.
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."
A series of smaller incidents made Holly begin to suspect that she was viewed differently from the show's white performers, such as being positioned in the very back of a cast photo (Hayman wasn't even called to the session) and having her dressing room taken away to make room for a new actress who was starting on the show. Eight years into the series, when it was expanded from a half hour to 45 minutes long, the cast began renegotiating their contracts in hushed conversations. That's when Holly deduced that she was getting paid on a vastly different scale.
At the time earning a yearly salary in the $20,000-to-$30,000 range, on terms that had repeatedly been stressed to her as nonnegotiable, she raised the issue with the network lawyer. "She said to me, 'You shouldn't expect the same money as everybody else. You should be grateful you have the job at all. Need I remind you how few jobs there are out there for black actresses?' "