by Tene Croom
For New Pittsburgh Courier
Ellen Holly made history when she joined the cast of “One Life to Live” in 1968 in its debut year. The show went off the air in January 2012 after seeing declining ratings. The stunningly beautiful actress became the first African-American woman to regularly appear on a soap opera.
Her character, Carla Bonari, also known as Clara Grey Hall Scott, would shock America. It turned out Carla was not who viewers thought she was. She was not White, but instead, a Black woman passing for white.
It was Holly who inadvertently got herself the job. She had written a letter to the editor of the New York Times in 1968 about the trials and tribulations of being a light-skinned actress. Agnes Dixon, who was creating “One Life to Live” read the letter and thought Holly would be good for a role in the soap opera. And the rest, of course, is daytime drama history.
Her first two years were spectacular she said of the ride. “It was an extraordinary star trip.” But, being in the fictional city of Llanview later became like a real daytime drama nightmare for her. She claims she was “unceremoniously” dismissed in 1985 after 17 years on the show.
Life for Holly, to hear her tell it, near the end of her time on the show, brings to mind a line from celebrated writer Langston Hughes poem, “Mother to Son.” He wrote ‘Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.’
She spoke about discrimination and hostility on the set. “My dressing room was taken away from me. Dressing rooms became a premium. So, they gave my dressing room to a White girl and sent me to dress with the extras. Terrible things happened.”
But, she wants to make one thing very clear. “The things that happened to me happened almost entirely from management. It had nothing to do with the cast or the crew or the support people. All those people were not only a joy to work with, they protected me against management.”
Holly says she was paid a pittance of what the white stars were making. She pointed a finger of blame at Nixon. “I had been paid nothing. Agnes Nixon never paid me more than $20,000 while she was paying her white stars a whole lot more.”
She goes on to give the shocking account of how much she made during her nearly two decades on the popular soap. “All told my 17 years added up to about $700,000. Meanwhile, she (Nixon) was paying her white stars a million dollars a year.”
There’s more Black History about Holly. She was the first Black woman to get a spot in the coveted Actors Studio, which has been providing training for professional actors, writers and directors since 1947.
Holly has additional details about her time on One Life to Live on her website, blackstarimploding.com. She also writes about her career in her autobiography entitled “One Life: The Autobiography of an African American Actress.”