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Ellen Holly, the actress and Broadway icon who became the first Black leading star of ABC’s popular soap opera One Life to Live, has died. She was 92. Holly passed away at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, New York, Dec. 6, according to NBC News. Her cause of death remains unknown. 

In 1957, Holly made her television debut on The Big Story, a TV drama series that brought national news stories from across the country to life, IMDb notes. However, the actress and Broadway star was best known for playing Carla Gray on ABC’s One Life to Live from 1968 to 1980. She returned to the long-running series from 1983 to 1985 after a three-year hiatus.

Holly’s iconic character, Carla Gray — a white-passing Black woman — was embroiled in a heated love triangle with a white doctor and a Black intern on the hit soap opera. The riveting show aired during the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement, a time when racial tension was thick across America.

“She wasn’t the usual blond, blue-eyed leading female. She looked very exotic, and she had this very exotic name,” Holly described of her iconic character during an interview with the Television Academy Foundation in 2018.

What’s more interesting, she lived in this cruddy apartment, this shabby apartment with all these pictures on the wall, but when she was having a nervous breakdown, and when she got dressed to go to the doctor — she would emerge from that place like a butterfly. She was very, very glamorous,” Holly continued. “She falls in love with a Black intern. Well, in the world with a soap opera, a white woman falling in love with a Black man? People started looking. This is something new. We better see where it’s going.”


Agnes Nixon, the creator of One Life to Live, cast Holly after reading her 1968 New York Times opinion piece, How Black Do You Have To Be, in which she detailed her struggles of finding work as a light-skinned Black actress. She signed a one-year contract for $300 a week, People noted.  

Ratings for the iconic soap opera soared after Holly’s character made her debut on the show. According to the star’s obituary, fans were enamored by Carla’s “attempt to come to terms with her racial identity” and her messy “love triangle.” Popular soap operas like All My Children and General Hospital began integrating Black characters into their storylines due to Carla’s success with viewers.

“When I first got the role, Agnes Nixon and I sat down for hours, and we talked endlessly about barriers that had been difficult to overcome for actors who looked like me,” Holly told The Root in 2012. “All of that was written into the story, and I felt I was illuminating some of those barriers.”

Sadly, some viewers of the show weren’t too thrilled to see Holly shine on daytime television. Before Carla’s identity as a Black woman was revealed, One Life to Live was canceled by a station in Lubbock, Texas, following a scene where Carla “kissed the Black intern,” according to a 1997 interview with Nixon. At the end of the season, a few white viewers sent in a slew of angry letters when Carla’s race was finally disclosed.


“I think people really did have to examine their prejudices. And a lot of people wrote saying that’s exactly what had happened for them,” Nixon said.

Later on in her career, Holly opened up about how she was underpaid and mistreated by executives while working on One Life to Live, inside her eye-opening memoir, One Life: The Autobiography of an African American Actress. In the ‘90s, Holly retired from her acting career and became a librarian at the White Plains Public Library, which were some of the “happiest” years “of her life,” according to the star’s obituary, People noted.

Before she became a trailblazer onscreen, Holly made her debut in the Broadway adaptation of Too Late the Phalarope in 1956. She went on to star in productions like Face of a Hero, Tiger Tiger Burning Bright and A Hand Is on the Gate, according to Broadway World.

No funeral will be held for the Hollywood veteran. Instead, her relatives have asked fans to donate to the Obama Presidential Center or St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to pay tribute to her legacy.


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