New York, NY - Actress Ellen Holly, the first black person to be cast in a central role in daytime television, takes her place in the annals of Black History. She reflects on her rocky road on the landmark daytime soap opera One Life to Live - which aired its final episode last month - in an open letter to her fans on her new website, www.blackstarimploding.com.
A veteran stage actress, Holly was a "name" in theater circles for Broadway roles played opposite Barry Sullivan and Jack Lemmon, leads at the New York Shakespeare Festival and off-Broadway pairings with James Earl Jones. Her One Life to Live saga began after she wrote a September 1968 piece for the New York Times called, "How Black Do You Have To Be?" that decried the rejection of fair-skinned black performers as "not black enough to use" for roles on camera (commercials, soaps, primetime TV and films). Agnes Nixon, who was developing One Life to Live for ABC, saw the piece and cast her as Carla Benari, a black actress struggling against discrimination.
But Holly claims that while the show was being hailed in the press as groundbreaking for both casting her in a central role and for drawing from the headlines of the turbulent 1960s, the treatment she and some of her fellow black cast mates received from show executives took a page from the playbook of daytime television’s duplicitous storylines. She alleges she was paid pennies to the dollar paid white stars and suffered years of overt hostility from show producers.
Meanwhile, she says that her plot line, which featured other black actors in prominent roles, including Lillian Hayman in the role of Carla’s mother, helped One Life to Live to develop a large black fan base: one quarter of the soap opera’s total viewership. Holly claims that this led to black story lines on All My Children and General Hospital and blacks buoying all three shows, helping the network reign in daytime for two decades.
Holly asserts that she and Hayman, who were the only remaining original cast members upon the show’s 15th anniversary and who helped to create that success, were not to share in it. Although it was the custom for original stars to be welcome for the entire run of a show, she and Hayman were shortly dismissed, thus repositioning whites to become the show’s veteran stars. She detailed the happenings in her autobiography, ONE LIFE: The Autobiography of an African American Actress.
"When people find out how badly I was treated they ask why I stayed," said Holly. "Not only was it due to the lack of options I had because of the dearth of roles offered to light-skinned African Americans actors, but also because I was aware that my casting was a sort of experiment, one that as other black ‘firsts’ needed to succeed for others to be hired." She continues to speak out on the obstacles faced by fair-skinned black actors and on the issue of what defines "Blackness."
Following her dismissal at age 54, Holly took occasional theater roles and worked until retirement as a library clerk. She shares details of her run on the show and photos on her website www.blackstarimploding.com and encourages soap opera fans to contact her there.