In Memoriam: Ellen Holly

Ellen Holly
(January 16, 1931 – December 6, 2023)

Holly was born on January 16, 1931, in Manhattan to William Garnet Holly, a chemical engineer, and Grayce Holly, a housewife and writer. After graduating from Hunter College, she joined the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. during her college tenure.

Her acting journey commenced on the stages of New York City and Boston. In 1956, she made her Broadway debut in “Too Late the Phalarope” and subsequently starred in productions such as “Face of a Hero,” “Tiger Tiger Burning Bright,” and “A Hand is on the Gate.” From 1958 to 1973, she headlined numerous Joseph Papp New York Shakespeare Festival productions. Additionally, Holly honed her craft under the guidance of dance pioneer Katherine Dunham and held a deep appreciation for the role of dance in showcasing the richness of African-American culture.

ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

Her early television appearances included roles on The Big Story (1957), The Defenders (1963), Sam Benedict (1963), Dr. Kildare (1964), and The Doctors and the Nurses (1963 and 1964).

Holly portrayed the groundbreaking character Carla Gray on the popular ABC series One Life to Live from 1968 to 1980 and again from 1983 to 1985. She was handpicked for the role by television producer Agnes Nixon, who was inspired by an opinion piece Holly wrote for The New York Times titled “How Black Do You Have To Be?”, addressing the challenges faced by light-skinned Black women in the entertainment industry.
Ellen Holly made history as the first Black person to lead a soap opera with her role on One Life to Live. Her exploration of racial identity and involvement in a love triangle with two doctors — one white, the other Black — propelled the soap opera to soaring ratings.

ONE LIFE TO LIVE – Shoot Date: July 23, 1978. (Photo by Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)

Holly’s prominence extended to features in Newsweek, TV Guide, Ebony, Soap Opera Digest, and the New York Times. Her impact led to the introduction of Black storylines on All My Children and General Hospital, solidifying ABC’s daytime dominance for two decades.

In later years, Holly vocalized concerns over alleged underpayment and mistreatment of herself and fellow Black cast members by show executives, despite their significant contributions to the show’s success. She wrote several articles for The New York Times, and became a librarian at the White Plains Public Library, where she referred to these years as some of the best in her life.

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