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ellenholly2Ellen Holly (1931- ) is an American actress, the first black actress ever to appear regularly on a soap opera. She played Carla Hall on “One Life to Live” from 1968 to 1985. She also played the president’s wife in “School Daze” (1988).

Holly grew up in New York, the daughter of a chemical engineer and a librarian. She studied acting at Hunter College and went on from there to act on stage. By 1956 she was on Broadway. She got in to the Actors Studio, the first black woman ever to do so.  She later  got parts in film and television too.

In 1968 Holly wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times about what it was like to be a light-skinned black woman. Agnes Dixon, who was then starting a new soap called “One Life to Live”, read that letter. It led her to create the character of Carla Gray (later Hall). She offered the part to Holly herself. Holly took it and became the first regular black female character on a soap. Other soaps soon followed their lead and had black characters of their own too.

When Holly first appeared on “One Life to Live”, on July 25th 1968, the second week of the show,  no one knew that she was black! Because of how she looks viewers assumed that she was white – so much so that when she kissed a black doctor many of them called to complain!  So then they brought her black mother into the story, showing that Holly’s character was trying to pass for white.

Her character was supposed to only last a year, but it was so successful that she was on the show till 1985 (with a break from 1980 to 1983). She wrote some of the storylines for Carla, becoming one of the few blacks who have written for a soap.

She later appeared on “Guiding Light”, another soap, from 1991 to 1993 as Judge Collier.

“One Life to Live” was the first time she played a regular character on a television show, though before that she had made appearances on “The Defenders”, “Nurses” and “Dr Kildare”. Her first television appearance was on “The Defenders” in 1963.

She was on “Spenser: For Hire” in 1986 and on “The Heat of the Night” four times in 1990.

ellen2She is been in a few films. “School Daze” is probably the best known one.   In 2002 she was in the Mario Van Peebles film, “10,000 Black Men Named George”.

She has done quite a bit of Shakespeare, especially in the New York Shakespeare Festival. She has played Lady Macbeth in “Macbeth”, Desdemona in “Othello” and the shrew herself in “Taming of the Shrew”. You can see her in the 1974 film “King Lear” starring James Earl Jones. She plays one of Lear’s evil daughters, Regan. You can see a bit of it on YouTube (at least in April 2009 you could).

She wrote about her life in “One Life: The Autobiography of an African American Actress” (1994). It is a powerful account of being talented, beautiful and black.

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