Ellen Holly, First Black Soap Opera Star, Dies at 92

The TV pioneer, Broadway star and author died in her sleep Wednesday in New York City

Ellen Holly
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Ellen Holly, the groundbreaking actress, who became the first Black actress to star in a soap opera, when she played Carla Gray on ABC’s “One Life to Live,” has died at 92.

“Remembering my cousin Ellen Holly this morning, who passed last night. She was a pioneer in day time television. Starring on ‘One Life to Live’ for 20 years. Playing Lawrence Fishburn’s mother on the show,” Holly’s cousin Grant Shipp, wrote in a tribute message on Facebook. Per a press release that shared the news of Holly’s death, the actress died “peacefully” in her sleep on Wednesday at Calvary Hospital in New York City.

Born in Manhattan, New York on Jan. 16, 1931, to her parents William Garnet Holly and Grayce Holly, she grew up in Richmond Hill, Queens, and graduated from Hunter College, where she became a member of the second-oldest historically-Black American sorority Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Holly first began her career acting on stage in the Broadway productions “Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright” and “A Hand Is on the Gate.”

She then pivoted to TV and film, which brought her to her “One Life to Live” role in 1968. She was hand-selected by television producer Agnes Nixon to play Carla after Nixon saw Holly’s New York Times opinion piece “How Black Do You Have To Be?” which detailed how she felt there was a challenge to find roles as a lighter-skinned Black woman. She took on the role from 1968 to 1980 and returned to the character in 1983 to 1985. Her words ultimately helped bring more diversity to casting rooms in Hollywood.

Afterward she landed guest-starring positions on “Sam Benedict” and “The Nurses.” From big screen roles to small screen, Holly went stepped into roles as a judge on “The Guiding Light” from 1988 to 1993 and acted in “In The Heat of the Night from 1989 to 1990” and starred in the TV series “10,000 Black Men Named George.”

“She appeared in several movies, and performed on stage with the greatest Black actors of her generation. Sidney Poitier, Harry Beafonte, Cicely Tyson, Robert Hooks, James Earl Jones to name a few,” Shipp continued in his post, praising his cousin. “You had One Life to Live and it was amazing Life. You were simply one of the best. Now you know the secret. God rest your soul.”

Holly is survived by her grand-nieces, Alexa and Ashley and their father, Xavier. She also leaves behind her first cousins Wanda, Julie, Carolyn and Clinton.


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