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America's First Black Soap Star Tells 'What Really Happened Behind Closed Doors'  and How Integrating the Soaps Wasn't Easy

Ms. Ellen Holly

Travelers, as One Life to Live comes to a close, Ellen Holly, the first Black person to have a central role in daytime TV, sets the record straight about her time on the show. The actress has launched a website, www.blackstarimploding.com.

The pioneering actress Ellen Holly Alleges discrimination and hostility on set of One Life to Live, as the daytime fixture prepares to air  final episode this January

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NEW YORK (January 12, 2012)—As viewers and television historians prepare to say good-bye to the landmark daytime soap opera One Life to Live on January 13, Ellen Holly, one of the show’s original cast members, hopes to expose what she believes were duplicitous behind-the-scenes happenings of the iconic daytime drama and the show’s true place in television history. Holly’s new website, www.blackstarimploding.com, makes explosive allegations about the show that was hailed by television critics as the first daytime soap to cast a black actress (herself) as a central character. Behind the scenes, Holly alleges, the treatment she and some of her fellow black cast mates received from producers and from the show’s creator, Agnes Nixon, was much more sinister and worthy of the outrageous story lines that color the daytime television landscape today.

Holly, a former theater and television actress, was cast in the trailblazing role of Carla Benari Gray (later Carla Gray Hall Scott) on One Life to Live, playing the character from the show’s beginning in 1968 until what she claims was her unceremonious dismissal in 1985. Her saga began after she penned a letter to the editor of the Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times on the plight of the light-skinned black actor in America . Agnes Nixon (then developing a new soap opera for the ABC network that would become One Life to Live) saw the piece and cast the actress as the character of Carla. The role of Carla, a black actress struggling for work and fighting against discrimination, would mark a major shift for soap operas. Against the backdrop of the turbulent and racially divisive 1960s, a story line focused on a black character not only reflected a changing American reality but was also a first for daytime TV. The media attention was immediate, and Holly and the show quickly garnered coverage in mainstream publications such as Newsweek, TV Guide and the New York Times.

The actress asserts that the tale of Carla, her attempt to come to terms with her racial identity and her love triangle with two doctors—one white, the other black—enthralled viewers and helped make the fledgling soap a ratings gold mine. With a cast that featured other black actors in prominent roles, including Lillian Hayman in the role of Carla’s mother, One Life to Live quickly developed a large black fan base (one that would come to comprise one quarter of the soap opera’s total viewership). Hoping to echo the success of One Life to Live, ABC developed another program with Nixon, All My Children, which also featured a black story line, as did the ABC soap opera General Hospital . The black audience that was so loyal to the “Carla” story line on One Life to Live quickly expanded to the other soaps and helped make ABC the dominant player in daytime drama for the next two decades.

By the fifteenth anniversary of One Life to Live, Holly and Hayman were the only stars from the original cast. Holly alleges that, even as she and Lillian Hayman were honored as such at the gala celebration for the occasion, corporate decisions were being made to terminate them so that whites could be repositioned to become the show’s veteran stars. As detailed in her autobiography, ONE LIFE: The Autobiography of an African American Actress, though aware of her decreased role on the show, and of being consistently denied a salary commensurate with her white peers, Holly had expected to be as welcome on the show throughout its lifetime as were the original stars on All My Children and General Hospital . However, this was not to be. After suffering months of what she perceived as overt hostility from a producer, on the eve of her contract renewal, Holly alleges she was informed that she “was not worth keeping” and would no longer be on the show. Likewise, Holly alleges that her coworker Hayman was soon told, in the studio’s parking lot, by a messenger for the show’s management team, that she had just completed her last day of work for the show.

“While I realize that nothing can be done now to rectify the treatment we received, as the show comes to an end I want to thank longtime fans of the show for caring about the characters Lillian and I played and to let them know we did not desert them by choice,” said Holly.

Though she remains grateful for the sincere support she received from the cast and crew after she was terminated, Holly is now on a mission to make it known how she believes the production team, management and series creator really treated the black talent that helped make the show a trailblazing hit and iconic part of American television history. On her website, Holly says that although Agnes Nixon continued to claim the creation of Carla Gray as one of the crowning moments of her career and singled Holly and Susan Lucci out as her most treasured stars, Holly and the character of Carla Gray were quickly relegated to the back pages of television’s history books. Carla Gray became a buried footnote in the canon of One Life to Live, and Holly spent the remainder of her working life as a library clerk following her dismissal at the age of fifty-four from her role as Carla.

On her website Holly also decries what she alleges was the “dirtying up” of her character by the show once she left: “Nixon herself no longer describes Carla to the press as a black actress struggling against discrimination but ‘a light-skinned black woman who masqueraded as a white woman to win acceptance from the citizens of Llanview.’” She is disappointed that the sullied version has already made its way into the history books. Holly hopes that soap opera historians will research the true history of the Carla character, as the other is one she would never have agreed to play.

Holly is hopeful that as viewers and critics mark the close of the show’s legendary run, they will also take time to acknowledge some of the darker aspects of the show’s history, and to appreciate the early African-American talents who were crucial players in the show’s development. Additionally, the thespian hopes to spur dialogue about the devastating obstacles fair-skinned black actors face in being cast by Hollywood . 

 

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