Ellen Holly, whose role on ABC’s hit soap opera One Life To Live made her the first Black actor to lead a daytime TV show, has died at the age of 92.
Holly’s rep confirmed to NBC News that she passed away on Wednesday at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, New York.
Holly was tapped to do the show after producer Agnes Nixon read her opinion piece in the New York Times. That piece, titled “How Black Do You Have To Be,” recounted Holly’s personal struggles in finding acting gigs as a light-skinned Black woman.
Holly’s character, Carla Gray (a.k.a. Carla Benari) was groundbreaking, as she was portrayed as a Black woman passing as white. Her main conflict on the show included a love triangle between two doctors – one white, one Black. This arc made One Life To Live one of the first soap operas to directly confront race relations.
The Atlantic recalled how Holly’s role “wasn’t easy” but it was pioneering and trailblazing in many ways.
In 1968, daytime’s first black heroine was Carla Benari on One Life To Live, the ABC soap created by Agnes Nixon, who was a friend of Phillips. Played by actress Ellen Holly, Carla was actually “Clara,” a housekeeper’s light-skinned daughter passing for white to avoid the discrimination of the day. In a controversial storyline, “Clara” charmed a white man but was eventually forced to confess to her heritage. Previously unaware of Holly’s true ethnicity, viewers in the 1960s, particularly in the South, were aghast. To be clear, Holly was not the first black actress to appear on daytime, but her presence, paved the way for OLTL to bring on black actors as love interests; Carla married in 1973, the soap world’s first black wedding.
Holly stayed with the show from 1968 through 1980, then returned from 1983 to 1985. Some of ther TV and film credits include The Guiding Light, In The Heat Of The Night, and Spike Lee’s School Daze.
Holly is survived by her grandnieces, Alexa and Ashley Jones; their father, Xavier Jones; and cousins Wanda Parsons Harris, Julie Adams Strandberg, Carolyn Adams-Kahn and Clinton Arnold.
Donations in Holly’s name can be made to The Obama Presidential Center or St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.
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