Trailblazer Ellen Holly Passes at 92

Pioneering actress Ellen Holly leaves a remarkable legacy behind.

by Nouman Rasool
Trailblazer Ellen Holly Passes at 92
© ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images

Ellen Holly, a pioneering African American actress renowned for her groundbreaking role in ABC’s “One Life to Live,” has passed away at 92. Her death occurred on December 6 at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, New York, as reported by NBC News, although the cause of her death remains undisclosed.

Holly, who first graced television screens in 1957 with “The Big Story,” is widely celebrated for her portrayal of Carla Gray in “One Life to Live” from 1968 to 1980, and then from 1983 to 1985. Her character, a light-skinned Black woman entangled in a complex love story, was a significant figure during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, challenging racial norms and expectations on national television.

In a 2018 interview with the Television Academy Foundation, Holly described Carla Gray as a departure from typical lead roles of the era. The character’s glamorous transformation and groundbreaking storyline – involving a romance with a Black intern – captured viewers' attention, marking a novel turn in soap opera narratives.

This role was a result of Agnes Nixon, the show’s creator, being inspired by Holly’s candid 1968 New York Times piece, “How Black Do You Have To Be?” Holly, who detailed her challenges in the entertainment industry as a light-skinned Black actress, joined the soap opera on a contract of $300 per week, as noted by People magazine.

Holly's Legacy Endures

Holly’s entrance into the soap opera led to a surge in ratings, with her character’s racial identity and complicated love life captivating the audience. This popularity prompted other soap operas like “All My Children” and “General Hospital” to integrate Black characters into their storylines.

Despite her success, Holly faced challenges, including underpayment and mistreatment by executives, as she revealed in her memoir, “One Life: The Autobiography of an African American Actress”. After retiring from acting in the 1990s, Holly found joy in her role as a librarian at the White Plains Public Library.

Before her television success, Holly made her Broadway debut in 1956 in “Too Late the Phalarope” and appeared in several other productions. In lieu of a funeral, Holly’s family has requested donations to the Obama Presidential Center or St.

Jude Children’s Research Hospital in her memory, honoring her lasting impact and trailblazing legacy in the entertainment industry.