‘One Life to Live’ Star Ellen Holly Dies: First Recurring Black Soap Actress Was 92

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Ellen Holly, the first Black actress to become a recurring soap star on ABC‘s One Life to Live as Carla Gray-Hall has died. The history-making soap star was 92 years old.

According to Holly’s publicist, the daytime TV star died in her sleep on Wednesday, December 6 at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx.

Holly is best known for her role on One Life to Live in which she starred in over 500 episodes from her debut in 1968 to 1985. She went on to feature in another popular soap, Guiding Light between 1988 and 1993, during which time she appeared in just under 60 episodes.

Ellen Holly in 'One Life to Live'

(Credit: ABC /Courtesy Everett Collection)

At the time of her casting, audiences were led to believe Holly’s character was white until it was revealed she was a light-skinned Black woman passing for white, something Holly had discussed openly in an op-ed for the New York Times, according to The Hollywood Reporter. When the op-ed caught the attention of One Life to Live‘s creator Agnes Nixon, Holly was signed to a one-year contract to portray Carla, and was ultimately written into her storyline.

Audiences were clued into Carla’s background when she runs into Sadie Gray (Lillian Hayman), a Black woman who heads housekeeping at Llanview Hospital, calling the woman “Mama.” The reveal ended in a cut to a black screen, leaving viewers on the edges of their seats.

“People were genuinely surprised,” Holly wrote in an article for the NYT. “Most found it absorbing. Others were fascinated by the way all the pieces fit. There were, of course, the inevitable ones who found it hard to take. ”

In addition to her roles on One Life to Live and Guiding Light, Holly appeared in episodes of The Defenders, Dr. Kildare, The Doctors and the Nurses, Great Performances, ABC Afterschool Specials, and In the Heat of the Night. She also featured in films such as School DazeCops and Robbers, and Take a Giant Step among others. She also had a relationship with singer, performer, and activist Harry Belafonte.

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