Ellen Holly Talks Transcending Black Stereotypes on One Life to Live

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Nearly 45 years ago, on One Life to Live, Ellen Holly became the first Black soap star. She played the compelling Carla Gray, a Black woman who passed for white. The storyline, which started as the brainchild of Agnes Nixon, engaged viewers and challenged their prejudices. Holly sat down with Soap Hub to remember working with Nixon and breaking stereotypes on daytime television.

Nixon used the character of Carla to allow viewers to examine their own biases, given that the audience only learned of Carla's identity as time went on. Nixon also worked with Hall on the storyline. Hall shared:

When I initially got the part, Agnes had me come up to her house and we talked at great lengths. Wonderful writer that she was, she was smart enough to know that, as a white person, she did not know all that much about the black world and how it functioned.

The storyline added even more depth to the character of Carla, especially in an era in which Black actresses' roles were comprised of stereotypes. Holly noted:

The portrayals of black women are so profoundly limited and have so very little to do with who black women really are. Black women are so fascinating and so complicated, and the variety is so tremendous that it’s almost a crime to see the limited framework in which black female roles are written.

Because it is so limited, to the extent that you transcend, even marginally, the limitations, progress is made. And I certainly feel that the roles that Lillian Hayman [Carla’s mother, Sadie] and I played went beyond the sort of stereotype roles that were usually available to us.

Holly recalled that Carla and her family proved favorites, despite some doubters. She noted:

They hedged their bets by signing us to the shortest contracts of any of the performers on the show. Other people were signed to two or three-year contracts. We were all signed to one-year contracts. They just didn’t know. Well, it played so marvelously that we were there for a long, long time.

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