Ellen Holly, the first Black person to star in a soap opera with her lead role on One Life to Live, died Wednesday at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, N.Y. She was 92 and died in her sleep.
Her first roles on television included appearances on The Big Story (1957), The Defenders (1963), Sam Benedict (1963), Dr. Kildare (1964) and The Doctors and the Nurses (1963 and 1964).
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Holly played the groundbreaking character Carla Gray on the hit ABC show One Life to Live from 1968 to 1980 and 1983 to 1985. She was personally chosen for the role by television producer Agnes Nixon after she saw a New York Times opinion piece that Holly wrote, called “How Black Do You Have To Be?” about the difficulty of finding roles as a light-skinned Black woman.
Holly was born on January 16, 1931, in Manhattan to parents William Garnet Holly, a chemical engineer, and Grayce Holly, a housewife and writer.
A graduate of Hunter College, she became a member of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. during her college years.
Holly began her acting career on New York City and Boston stages. She made her Broadway debut in Too Late the Phalarope in 1956, and she went on to star in the Broadway productions Face of a Hero, Tiger Tiger Burning Bright and A Hand is on the Gate.
From 1958 to 1973, she led productions of numerous Joseph Papp New York Shakespeare Festival productions. Throughout her years in the theater, she worked opposite such luminaries as Roscoe Lee Browne, James Earl Jones, Jack Lemmon, Barry Sullivan and Cicely Tyson. Holly also studied with dance pioneer Katherine Dunham and was passionate about the role of dance in revealing the richness of African-American culture.
On One Life to Live, her attempt to come to terms with her racial identity and her love triangle with two doctors — one white, the other Black — helped launch viewership of the nascent soap opera into high ratings.
Holly was featured in such publications as Newsweek, TV Guide, Ebony, Soap Opera Digest and the New York Times. Soon, there were Black story lines on All My Children and General Hospital, helping ABC to dominate daytime for two decades.
In later years, Holly spoke out about being underpaid and other mistreatment she claimed she and some of her fellow Black cast mates received from show executives despite their contributions to the show’s success.
She continued to appear on the small screen, with a recurring role as a judge on The Guiding Light from 1988 to 1993 and In The Heat of the Night from 1989 to 1990 as well as the television movie 10,000 Black Men Named George, alongside Andre Braugher and Mario Van Peebles.
She also appeared on the big screen in Take a Giant Step, Cops and Robbers and Spike Lee’s School Daze.
Holly wrote numerous pieces for the New York Times. In 1996, her autobiography, One Life: The Autobiography of an African American Actress, was published. Reflective of a life dedicated to the arts and civil rights causes, in her final years she began preparations on a documentary about her life and the storied activism of her family.
In the 1990s, she took the civil service examination and became a librarian, serving as such for many years at White Plains Public Library. In her autobiography, she referred to her years there as some of the happiest of her life.
Holly was predeceased by her younger sister, Jean H. Gant, and her niece, Holly Gant Jones. She Is survived by her grand-nieces Alexa and Ashley Jones (White Plains), daughters of her beloved niece, Holly Gant Jones, who predeceased her, and their father, Xavier Jones; first cousins Wanda Parsons Harris (Dayton, Ohio), Julie Adams Strandberg (Providence, Rhode Island), Carolyn Adams-Kahn (New York), Clinton Arnold (Los Angeles).
In keeping with Holly’s wishes, there will be no funeral. As an expression of sympathy, donations may be made to The Obama Presidential Center or St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
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