Ellen Holly, a stage and screen actor who became the first Black star of a daytime television series with her role as Carla Gray in ABC’s soap opera “One Life to Live,” died Wednesday at Cavalry Hospital in the Bronx, N.Y. She was 92.
Holly’s death was confirmed by a representative for the actor.
Cast on “One Life to Live” in 1968, Holly stayed with the long-running series through 1980, before returning from 1983 to 1985. Producer Agnes Nixon cast Holly in the role after reading the actor’s New York Times opinion piece “How Black Do You Have To Be?,” in which Holly recounted her personal difficulties in finding acting work as a light-skinned Black woman.
Carla Gray’s main conflict in the series regarded a love triangle between two doctors — one white, one Black. The arc predated storylines on “All My Children” and “General Hospital” that also directly confronted race. In her 1996 autobiography, “One Life: The Autobiography of an African American Actress,” Holly recounted how her and her Black co-stars were underpaid and mistreated by executives while working on “One Life to Live.”
Born on Jan. 16, 1931 in Manhattan, Holly’s family was prominent force in the local Black community, with relatives including the first African American woman to receive an M.D. in New York City, as well as the city’s first Black female principal and the first Black woman to be in the cabinet of the city’s mayor. Raised in Queens, Holly graduated from Hunter College before beginning a career in acting across the New York and Boston theater scenes.
Holly made her Broadway debut in 1956 in an adaptation of “Too Late the Phalarope” before starring in productions like “Face of a Hero,” “Tiger Tiger Burning Bright” and “A Hand Is on the Gate.” Her first television role came in 1957 on “The Big Story.”
After “One Life to Live” concluded, Holly continued to work, with roles on “The Guiding Light,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “10,000 Black Men Named George” and Spike Lee’s “School Daze.” In the 1990s, she became a librarian at White Plains Public Library.
Holly is survived by her grand-nieces, Alexa and Ashley Jones; their father, Xavier Jones and cousins, Wanda Parsons Harris, Julie Adams Strandberg, Carolyn Adams-Kahn and Clinton Arnold.
Donations may be made in Holly’s name to The Obama Presidential Center or St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
J. Kim Murphy