Home Interviews Exclusive Interview With The First African-American Star in Soap Operas' History: The Legendary Ellen Holly
Exclusive Interview With The First African-American Star in Soap Operas' History: The Legendary Ellen Holly PDF Print E-mail
Written by Patricia Turnier   
Monday, 14 January 2013 16:29

The great Shakespearean actress Ellen Virginia Holly was born on January 16, 1931, in the city of New York. She is the daughter of William Holly, a chemical engineer -- he headed the laboratory at the Gypsy Paint and Varnish Company and was the creator of all its patents -- and Grayce Holly1, a librarian. Hence, the actress came from a prominent family. Her great grandmother, Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Steward was the valedictorian at her graduation from medical school in the 1800s. She became the third Black woman in America to earn a medical degree. Holly’s grandmother and mother were teachers. Her aunt, Dr. Anna Arnold Hedgeman, was a brilliant public speaker who shared a platform with former First lady Eleanor Roosevelt. In addition, she was an authoress and was an appointed assistant to Oscar Ewing, the head of the Federal Security Administration under the Truman administration. Furthermore, she had her own TV program One Woman’s Opinion, etc. She also earned Honorary Doctorates.

In this regard, Holly’s family history is rich in many ways. At some point in the 19th century her ancestors lived in Haiti. So, Ms. Holly has Creole and French origins. This provided the impetus to develop her film script (it has been out there for decades) Dark Ballrooms…Black Chandeliers and it has been a longtime dream of hers that it materializes as a movie one day.

Holly made her Broadway debut appearing opposite the film star, Barry Sullivan, in Too Late the Phalarope a play about South African apartheid based on the book of the same name by the great South African writer, Alan Paton. Ellen Holly did the N.Y. Shakespeare Festival as Joseph Papp’s favorite leading lady. In this sense, she played in Macbeth. During her theatre career, she also portrayed the role of Duchess of Hapsburg in Funnyhouse of a Negro among others. Later, she began a television and film career. She guest starred on Sam Benedict and The Nurses. Ellen Holly made history when she joined the cast of the ABC soap opera One Life to Live in 1968. She played the popular character Carla Benari on OLTL from 1968 to 1981, and 1983 until 1985. This role was the standout of the soap opera’s first ten years and Holly wrote the story to a great extent based on her life experiences. Moreover, she contributed to other story lines of the daytime show. Holly came to the attention of Agnes Nixon (then creating a new soap opera for the ABC network that would become One Life to Live), after penning an article entitled “How Black Do You Have To Be?” for the Arts & Leisure section of The New York Times2 about the plight of the light-skinned Black actor in America. Nixon created the role of Carla and offered Holly a role on her new soap opera. This made OLTL the first daytime show in history to have a racially mixed cast and to address interracial relationships.

When Holly began on One Life to Live in October 1968, her African-American heritage was not broadcasted at first as part of the storyline; her character was a touring actress of apparently Italian American heritage who later became an Assistant District Attorney. Carla and a Caucasian physician, Dr. Jim Craig (played by Robert Milli), became a couple and later got engaged. However, she was falling for an African-American doctor (performed by Peter De Anda). When the two kissed on screen, it was reported that the switchboards at ABC were kept busy by fans who thought the soap opera had showcased an African-American and Caucasian kissing. The fact that Carla was actually the African-American "Clara Grey" posing as Caucasian was revealed3 when Sadie Grey, performed by Lillian Hayman, was identified as her mother. Sadie would eventually convince her daughter to reveal her heritage and tell the truth.

Holly left the series in 1981 after a confrontation with the director, but returned in 1983. According to her autobiography, One Life: The Autobiography of an African American Actress, she was later fired from the show by the new executive producer in 1985, Paul Rauch. After, as of 1988 until 1993, she played the role of Judge Frances Collier on Guiding Light. She made a return to the small screen in 2002 when she appeared as "Selena Frey" in the made-for-cable film, 10,000 Black Men Named George with Andre Braugher and Mario Van Peebles.

One Life: The Autobiography of an African American Actress is one of the most beautiful, brilliant and jaw-dropping autobiographies written by an actress. The book is entertaining, provocative, compelling and inspiring. In other words, it is dynamite! The memoir provides an inside and introspective look on how hard it can be to rise as an African-American actress, even when you have everything going for you: intelligence, beauty, creativity and so on. In her autobiography, Holly shares her sorrows about her cutthroat work environment, severe pay inequities as an actress4, discrimination, harassment (she received psychological attacks on her African origins), ageism5 among other serious issues, including her unceremonious dismissal from OLTL in 1985. Hence, many themes are covered in the book regarding the entertainment industry: colorism, tokenism, the glass ceiling that “visible minorities” have to face, the perpetual and incessant exploitation of Black labor, injustice, lawlessness and so on. The authoress also relates her joys in her personal and professional lives.

The readers will learn in depth about the aforementioned prominent past of Holly’s family. Thus, the authoress shares her fascinating genealogy in her autobiography. One of her ancestors was an African prince who escaped from the slave ship. What is ironic is that, we feel in Holly’s character the desire to fight in her own rights and terms for freedom. Holly maintains her dignity. She is proud of her African heritage and so values it that, in those instances in which casting directors offered her roles if she would be willing to be discreet and not mention that she was Black, she was appalled and turned them down. In her memoir, she honors her family history and ancestry.

Aside from Holly’s own story, the memoir offers a prospect and analysis of what happened in the film industry in ensuing decades, including Black entertainment as a whole. The book has the power to make the readers run the gamut of emotions. It can make you laugh, cry and so on. The actress’ life story is narrated with such sincerity. Ellen Holly is bold and daring in exposing what is going on behind the camera. She suffered from alcoholism throughout the years. What made her survive was the support of her family and her love of writing.

The masterpiece One Life is a must read for anybody interested in the film industry and who wants to pursue a career in entertainment. The memoir offers a map to grasping the complexities of show business, and is a page turner which makes you unwilling to finish reading it. Her memoir was part of our top 20 books last summer: Top20Summer.

Prominent people such as Dr. Bill Cosby, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis have endorsed One Life. Ellen Holly’s book should be translated into several languages: French, Spanish, etc. In addition, the e-book version should be created. The book is written in Holly’s own voice, without a ghostwriter or "editor." Being a perfectionist, it took her ten years to complete it. The autobiography is dedicated to her late mother, Grayce Arnold Holly (1904-1994) for her grateful memory of the luminous gift of her total unconditional love. Holly’s story and her family’s should become a movie.

Overall, Ellen Holly is a highly educated actress and one of the most brilliant artists in the entertainment industry. She went to Hunter College where she majored in Fine Arts and minored in Speech & Drama. She got her bachelor’s degree in 1952 from her alma mater which is now the Hunter College of the City University of New York. She became a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority. Later, she took acting lessons at the Perry-Mansfield School fo the Theater to become a Shakespearean actress. She made her Broadway debut in 1956 opposite actor Barry Sullivan in the play Too Late The Phalarope. A year later, Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg chose her for entry into the Actors Studio, a first for a Black actress. Major roles on Broadway followed, as well as several years at the New York Shakespeare Festival. Her stage roles comprise "Tiger Tiger Burning Bright," "Face of a Hero," "Henry V," "MacBeth" and "Taming of the Shrew." Hence, before she became a soap opera star, she was respected and recognized by critics in NY for her body of work in theater.

Ellen Holly wrote for the prestigious The New York Times, she penned screenplays and so on. The actress was listed in several publications, including The Soap Opera Encyclopedia. She made the cover of Ebony magazine on October 19796. Ellen Holly and Arthur Burghardt (who played the handsome heart surgeon Dr. Jack Scott in OLTL) made history by becoming the first soap opera performers to appear on the cover of this magazine. Furthermore, she did Ebony fashion layouts. She has been featured in Jet Magazine, TV Guide, Newsweek, etc. Ellen Holly deserves a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Daytime Emmys and an honorary Doctorate.

Ellen Holly is a multi-talented and very expressive Black actress. She became best known for her part as Carla in OLTL which she played for 17 years and she proved she was much more than a soap opera actress. On television, she had several guest starring roles on THE NURSES, THE DEFENDERS, SAM BENEDICT, DR. KILDARE, CONFIDENTIAL FILE, PALL MALL THEATER, SPENSER FOR HIRE, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT. She also appeared in Spike Lee’s movie School Daze, etc.

Here she shares her thoughts about the ongoing status of Blacks and other “minorities”, primarily on television. In her memoir and in our interview, she didn’t hold back any information. She gives it freely. Ellen Holly also had the generosity to inform us in the following interview about the two great mentors in her career: Joseph Papp and Michael Kahn. She is also grateful to Jill Nelson, her book publisher Kodansha.

Ellen Holly is a very creative, multi-talented and ambitious woman. She is in her eighties and still looks gorgeous. Black beauty doesn’t fade with age. Talking to her was like having a conversation with our modern Dorothy Dandridge because she has so much talent, like the late actress, but what she had to offer was not fully recognized by the entertainment industry. However, her memoir, One Life, is the legacy that she is giving especially to aspiring artists. Holly is among our first Black actresses, a pioneer. She is a classy and eloquent lady, one of the most intelligent actresses in America. To conclude, I was not born when Holly made her debut on OLTL in 1968. It would be nice for younger generations in the future to make the series available since the 60s to discover through YouTube the high calibre performance of Ellen Holly on the show.  The following interview took place last summer.

P.T. You made history as an African-American actress when you joined the cast of One Life to Live in 1968. What does it mean to you to be recognized as a trailblazer?

E.H. That is an interesting question because I am not recognized that often as a trailblazer.

P.T. You are humble, you are a pioneer.

E.H. How I see it, my first two years were really glorious. However, 27 years ago One Life to Live terminated me in a shocking and brutal manner. The soap opera erased my history on the show as if it never happened.

P.T. In our eyes you are a trailblazer.

E.H. Thank you! It took me years to understand what a complex situation I was dealing with. Agnes Nixon, the creator and producer of the show, operated paradoxically toward me. The creator and the producer of the show, Agnes Nixon, recognized my important contribution to the press until recently. After forty two years, One Life to Live closed its door earlier this year, on January 13th. On January 16th , the Soap Opera Digest wrote an article devoted to the end of the series. Agnes Nixon was quoted in the article and said: “the most important story to me was Carla Gray played by Ellen Holly”. Everybody who read those lines would never dream that I was terminated on her show even though I was an important player to her success. As a result, my story is a cautionary tale of a performance which people would do well to learn from. When Agnes Nixon introduced herself to the country and the media, she mentioned that she was like my fairy godmother and declared that I was her most valued star. Behind the scenes, I was poorly paid and badly treated. Nixon is recognized for establishing integration in daytime TV but the reality is another story. When One Life debuted in 1968, Agnes Nixon casted me (on October 7th) as Carla Benari, a Black actress whose real name was Clara Gray. In her hunger to become a star, she adopted an exotic stage name and passed for White. She would live to regret it. This is how I ended up in the history annals as the first Black soap opera star who got a central role in daytime television.

At the time, my whole world changed because it was a big breakthrough. A few years earlier, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were enacted, which made Black Americans equal for the first time in the history of the nation7. So, the concept of Black equality was so new that when one of us became a trailblazer in a specific field, we were treated as royalty. In this regard, I was on publications such as Newsweek and TV Guide when I began my role on One Life to Live. There was coverage of me in the Sunday New York Times and I offered to write the article. So, all this publicity brought to OLTL a bigger mainstream audience and an important part of Black American viewers.

African-Americans represented 23% of the show’s viewers even if they were only approximately 12% of the population at the time. The network was really satisfied with the huge ratings and it helped the show to stay on TV. This success allowed it to launch and later propel All My Children (in 1970) also created by Nixon. It was the network that asked Nixon to work on this second soap opera. Seeing that the Carla Gray story was a success, Agnes Nixon made sure to integrate Black storylines on All My Children. So, the success of Black stories (with the viewers from OLTL) led to the creation of the first Black storylines since the debut of All My Children in 1970. This was very well received and gave great value to these soap operas for decades.

Throughout the years on OLTL, we had actors such as Robert Milli and another Black actor (Peter De Anda). When their storylines were developed enough and well put in place, their stories were terminated almost overnight, so these actors had to go. I was paired after with an aging Black character. The relationship in this storyline was tepid and platonic. He was a Congressman who spent most of his time in Washington. The fans and the press complained. In response, Al Freeman was put forward as the Black star of the show in 1972. He was the head of the police in OLTL. Lily was his mother-in-law and I became his wife. We were his satellites. We often sat at home at the kitchen table and just drank coffee, gossiping about the neighbors. This is how my role deteriorated for a while. All the chemistry in my storyline disappeared and the focus was on the domestic side. In the end, I left the show in 1985 after being fired by the new executive producer.

In 1988, Nielsen Research published a landmark study titled Television Viewing Among Blacks. All three ABC soaps (OLTL, All My Children and General Hospital) appeared on the graph titled Top Shows Among Black Viewers. Ironically, the graph would feature an asterisk that noted that One Life to Live was the only soap on the list to feature no Black storyline. Three years earlier One Life had terminated The Carla Storyline and opted to become an all-White show.

P.T. By writing the book, you were bold and daring to pen what goes on behind the camera. Why was it important for you to do it? Was this process a cathartic experience for you?

E.H. It was definitely cathartic because I needed to set the record straight regarding the story of “The Little Nobody” discovered by Agnes Nixon posturing as my “Fairy Godmother.” This myth prevailed for decades. In 1988, when the Museum of Broadcasting devoted an entire evening to her career, she choreographed the proceedings to showcase Susan Lucci and Ellen Holly as her most valuable stars. The draft of her prepared remarks for the occasion devoted a full four pages of text to my contribution to the show. I needed to tell my story because the reality was something else. I was grossly underpaid for the 17 years of service in OLTL and I was fired three years before the event at the Museum of Broadcasting. There was grave iniquity in terms of payment and grotesque dishonesty, especially when I also contributed to the writing of some scenes.

In July of 1983, OLTL celebrated its 15th Anniversary with an elaborate party at Tavern on the Green in Central Park. Lilian Hayman and I were honored as the veteran stars – Carla was the first Black central role of the history of daytime television. In addition, we were the show’s only remaining original stars. It was the last anniversary of the soap we attended. On the close of my contract, I was called up to the producer’s office and told I was going to be dropped as not worth keeping. Lillian [Hayman] didn’t even have a reason and didn’t get any official warning. Instead, after a day of work, she was accosted in the parking garage by a clerk from the upstairs office and informed that “Paul Rauch wants you to know you’ve just worked your last day on the show.” Rauch (the producer) hadn’t even given her enough notice to clear out her dressing room. She sat in her car to pull herself together then she went to an outside phone and called the Black security guards at the front desk. On their instruction she drove in that weekend when the studio was closed. They let her in and help her to remove her things.

P.T. This situation is unacceptable! Hayman was a very talented actress. She had a Tony Award! You know often in our society this famous question is being raised: “Why there are so many drop-outs among the youth in the Black community? They hear these stories happening to talented and experienced Black people and it explains why there are kids in our community who do not want to try to make it, because they see there are still a lot of hurdles on our path. I am glad that you are sharing your story with us regarding discriminatory practices in the workplace, including economic violence, because our youth needs the support required by veterans who made it to help them navigate these obstacles and triumph.

E.H. Thank you for mentioning this! My presence on the show and Lillian‘s have been pretty much discounted after our departure and for many years -- even when the ending of the show was celebrated in January of this year in the media. Lillian and I were not even mentioned. So, when you said earlier that I am a trailblazer, it is not recognized. For decades, Agnes Nixon has been praised for the ground-breaking, topical and often controversial stories featured in the early years of her daytime shows One Life to Live and All My Children. To this day television historians discuss the story and Nixon herself mentions it often as a story she's still very proud of (it is showcased on her website as an important event on her 1960s timeline feature).  I believe that the Carla/Clara story and the inclusion of African-American cast members were simply tricks meant to get mainstream press attention and bring Black viewers in. Once the story and characters/actors served their purpose, they were pushed to the side. We were tokens. Though Lillian Hayman and I were kept on the show for years, it was essentially as figureheads and an opportunity for Nixon, the creator of the show, to continue to pat herself on the back in the press for having an integrated cast. People will discover with my book that there is another side to this tale.

It was definitely liberating for me to write my memoir. It made me feel like a new person. My autobiography is also so much more than my time in OLTL. In this regard, it is about my family and the years I spent in theaters being part of classic plays. For me, those were glorious years. I performed for such theatrical giants as the producer/directors Michael Kahn and Joseph Papp. They were my true mentors during the fifties and sixties. They respected my work and my talent. They valued me professionally and they were brilliant men. I could not be in better hands. I will always be deeply grateful for what they gave me.

P.T. In your fans’ eyes you are, and they know you paved the way for other Black actors in daytime television. Your fans know the truth.

E.H. [chuckles] Thank you! I want to mention that Lillian Hayman was a brilliant and magnificently gifted actress. She was also an academic who got her BA from Wilberforce University in Ohio. After, she went to New York and started her career in Broadway theatre. She possessed a great voice among other talents. She did many musicals such as Porgy and Bess. She got a Tony Award for Hallelujah, Baby! in 1968. In the sixties, we were both major names in the New York Theater. Hayman was a fabulous actress and I hope that prestigious posthumous awards will be given in her honor to her family. When OLTL fired her a couple of months after me, this is how I realised how awful they were because she was an amazing actress. It is obvious that their decision was totally arbitrary. It was also about abuse of power. Their decision had nothing to do with talent and everything to do with removing us from first place as the veterans of the show. This is how they made us disappear from the Llanview landscape with no “visible minorities” on the show. It was their purpose. I hope my book will aspire actors avoid the pitfalls of the entertainment business. They must learn “to watch their backs” and not enter the industry blindly.

P.T. How has your book One Life been received by the mainstream, the Black community and the people in your industry so far?

E.H. I received great critiques. Booklist Magazine called my memoir a powerful mix of race and theatrical life. The Black Book Review also praised my autobiography. The brilliant author Jill Nelson who wrote Volunteer Slavery endorsed my memoir with her article in The Women’s Review of Books. Her review was so insightful and it had shrewdness.

Nevertheless, because my autobiography speaks so candidly about the racism on One Life, once the editors across the fan magazine spectrum realized that it wasn’t the usual celebrity fluff written by ghost writers but a scathing personal account of exploitation, they “circled the wagons” to protect Agnes Nixon and the show. On some magazines the editors cancelled articles already written. On others, writers called me to apologize for editors who had radically altered their reviews of my book to be brief and bland while giving no hint of its actual contents. At first I felt betrayed because the lack of coverage gave my autobiography less exposure. Later on, I came to realize that they felt they had to protect their jobs.

It is easy for prime time TV critics to write whatever they want to because there are hundreds of shows. By contrast, there were only about ten daytime soaps some of which have lasted for decades. For a single soap to bar the door to a fan magazine because they don’t like its coverage would doom the publication to lose 10% of the turf on which it made its living. Once I saw things from their perspective I was quick to forgive the fan magazines. They had always been quite wonderful to me as long as they could afford to be and I now remember them kindly.

As for individual people, their responses to my book have been thrilling… well worth the ten years it took me to write it. The one disturbing note has come from Black actresses who have identified with what I have written more profoundly than I would wish for their own sake. Far too many have said to me. “You think you were writing history? Something that happened a long ago? Think again. What happened to you is what is happening to me right now!” That’s pretty scary.

P.T. It is not happening only in the entertainment industry, but unfortunately in many other fields. Your story is the story of too many of our people.

E.H. Absolutely!

P.T. So many Black families in America lost information about their ancestors. Your book provides thorough information about your family’s past. For example, your great-great-great-great-grandfather was an African prince who, as a child of 10-years-old, was kidnapped and transported across the Middle Passage in the hold of a slave ship in the 1700s. You came from a prominent family. Your great-grandmother, Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Steward graduated from the New York Medical College and Hospital for Women. She was the third Black woman in America to earn a medical degree (the first was Dr. Rebecca Lee) and was a valedictorian. How did your family keep these memories alive? Moreover, did coming from an eminent family put pressure on you since your childhood to be an overachiever and a replica of your family’s success?

E.H. From earliest childhood, I was aware of my family’s contribution to history. Once I started to write my memoir, I didn’t need to research the history because it was already so well documented. The more personal documents were kept in a family trunk including a beautiful hand-illuminated parchment that recorded the marriages of the Smith Sisters. They had both married clerics. My great-grandmother, Dr. McKinney, was married to Rev. William McKinney. Her sister (my great-grand aunt) Minsarah Smith espoused the famous abolitionist Rev. Henry Highland Garnet who was a militant Presbyterian minister. Along with Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, he regularly conferred with Abraham Lincoln. The eminent historian Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote a recent article in The New Yorker that described Garnet as the Malcolm X of his day to Douglass’ more conciliatory Dr. Martin Luther King. Incidentally, my great-grandmother Susan was not just a famous physician (two institutions in New York are named after her: Junior High School 265 and the Susan Smith McKinney Nursing Home), she was also a pioneer feminist. She founded the Women’s Local Union and the Equal Suffrage League of Brooklyn.  Bishop James Theodore Holly was another prominent ancestor of mine. He became the first Black bishop of the American Succession of the Protestant Episcopal Church. He was ordained in 1874 at Grace Church down on Wall Street.

Your question is very insightful and I have to say yes, I always felt tremendous pressure to succeed in terms of what it meant to my family. For my family members, success was not about the acquisition of material wealth, but about using your intellect to open the door wider for Black people who live in an oppressive society which devalues us. My family was highly political. It was the pressure I felt to be useful in the Black struggle to attain equality.

It was painful for me to be paid pennies as a Black actress on One Life to Live and see White actors who arrived later on the show become mega-millionaires (including the people behind the camera) on the backs of the Black audiences I had brought to the show. I really felt manipulated, and when you come from a Black family like mine where you are brought up from the cradle to believe you have a moral obligation to be useful to your own people it is a travesty to be exploited the way I was. In addition, it is the last thing you would expect to happen to you later in life. I was not brought up to make White people rich but to make Black people free. So, I wanted to repeat the success of my ancestors by being useful and to better the lives of our people.

P.T. In your book, the readers learned that you wrote for One Life To Live without receiving the credit for it, which was an unfortunate precedent. Why did you accept to write some storylines for OLTL without getting paid for it and what advice do you have for younger people to avoid these types of situations?

E.H. Your question is compelling because it’s tied to what you asked me earlier. The show made it clear to me that they would welcome my writing but only if I were willing to do it for free …i.e. without pay or credit. I’m not stupid. I knew that, on the face of it, it was a Devil’s Bargain. But I saw it as a trade-off and went ahead with it for the sake of getting more nuanced, more complex Black American characters on the air.

My advice to younger people is they must realise that they live in a capitalist country where money is value and an individual willing to do something for free is not necessarily appreciated. The executives were happy to use my writing because of its quality, but, because I was willing to do it for free, it was not as valued and respected as it would have been if I had been able to charge them a lot of money for it. This is something you learn through experience. You are seen as naïve if you do anything “for free" and are viewed as somebody who is easy to take advantage of. This is the risk for anybody who is willing to do something for free with idealistic purposes. A young person needs to assess what feels “right” in terms of their value system but they should always be aware of the price they will pay for their decision either way. He/she has to speak with people who have solid experience in the entertainment industry to make sure that he/she won’t get a bad deal. It is reassuring to see more and more actors who learned through the years to negotiate their salaries and some even get royalties and/or back-end bonuses with movies. This did not exist in the past. So, things are changing. Furthermore, women actresses need to be more assertive and make sure that their work is valued in every way.

P.T. The situation concerning “minorities” in Soap Operas is complex. For instance, the soap opera Generations which aired on NBC from 1989 till 1991 didn’t last. What solutions do you see for African-Americans and other “visible minorities” to be more represented in soap operas behind and in front the camera?

E.H. I never watched Generations so I don’t have any firsthand impression on the reason it didn’t last. About figuring out what we can do to better function in the soap opera world, there is not an easy answer because now one soap after another disappears so rapidly. Only four American daytime soap operas remained. In 1970, there were 19 different soap operas on television and in the past we had soaps on radio. Things drastically changed throughout the time. So, I believe we need to work with what is available. I think time spent on decoding how to make daytime shows work for Black people is a waste of time that would be better spent on dramatic fare which is flourishing and has a future. The secret of success in any entertainment medium is vivid “storytelling” anchored by three dimensional characters. In my opinion, one of the most successful examples of that was Roots, the TV series based on the book by Alex Haley. It was not a coincidence this dramatic serial was among the most watched in American television history. It brought our country together in the most unusual way and everybody was fascinated about the storytelling. We were hooked! It was unique because I didn’t see any other series which made a big impact such as this one. In urban America, it was the main topic in coffee shops in the mornings or later at offices and so on. It was an obsession [chuckles] and it had everything to do with storytelling. So, the quality of the writing is everything. I think it is a prerequisite to find writers who are able to tell universal stories where people from all walks of life can relate. It will definitely be a recipe for success for prime time series and so on. In other words, this will be the best way to crack the code.

P.T. The movie industry grosses billions of Black dollars (25 percent of the audience at movie box offices in the U.S. is Black). In addition, among all groups in America, African-Americans spend the most time watching TV programs. Do you think that the Black audience is well represented in the media? In other words, what is your assessment of the current Black images in the film and TV businesses, especially in soap operas?

E.H. When I think about how the Tea Party and some other Right Wing Conservatives often portray Black people as passive citizens looking for handouts and depict Black women as welfare Queens or freeloaders living on White tax money, we see these same distorted images in TV fictions. For instance, the fictional policemen who conduct drug wars in ghettos confirm and reinforce many biases with insular views and stereotypes.

We, Black people, as consumers spend billions of dollars in all kinds of American markets and enterprises from which we get very little of value in return. In too many instances, they live off our dollars. As you so well said, the film industry is a multi-billion dollar enterprise and gets a significant percentage of Black America’s money in profits. We can count on our fingers the principle Black superstar actors and actresses. Some of the roles they get are beneath their abilities and/or they get the highest awards for playing a denigrating part. In addition, there is a scarcity of our people in the unions and behind the camera.

Overall, I don’t think our people are that well represented in the media. For instance, The Cosby Show ended twenty years ago and since then I haven’t seen another sitcom depicting us well on that level with the same caliber of terrific writing. There is a lot of variety in the Black population and too often we see the same typical formulas: stereotypes depicting us, which are completely in contrast to our reality. Again, there is a great dearth of nuanced and complex Black characters.

I believe that diversity in story lines will bring wealth. Homogeneousness is certainly not something to hope for in the media, likewise for several racialized narratives in music videos which often present a distorted, unique image of our people.

P.T. As an actress, are you worried about the fact that more and more we see Reality TV shows which are cheaper to produce instead of programs with storylines? Several soap operas died in the last few years. Are you preoccupied with the fact that there is less creativity in your realm?

E.H. I believe that money is corrupting American politics and American arts. You are right about the issue you are raising. Reality shows are cheap to produce so networks interested in profit margins have made them the new trend.

Quality drama is expensive to produce. Gifted writers capable of structuring plots that create suspense and momentum, skilled actors able to bring nuance and complexity to characters, all cost money.

By contrast, amateurs who are exhibitionists can be bought for a dime. Formal writing goes out the window and these people manufacture drama-on-the-spot by drumming up b* confrontations and catfights against gaudy backgrounds that equate success, not with accomplishment, but with the acquisition of material goods.

Shows with White casts and Black casts are equally guilty of this but with Blacks our circumstance is more punishing. With few Oscar-worthy roles available to skilled Black actresses, the genuinely gifted sit at home while strident amateurs on TV reality shows posture all over The Tube busy, busy, busy providing unsavory role models for our children.

P.T. Another reality is that many people do not read. So, when you don’t take the time for this, you won’t get ideas with substance, consequently the writing will be poor.

E.H. You are absolutely right! This is definitely another reality! Reading great books is like doing aerobics for the imagination. I would like to add that after the long strike conducted by the Writers Guild of America, and the economic crisis, other media conglomerates were affected also. Innovative fictions are seldom and have difficulty to thrive.

P.T. As a veteran of the entertainment industry, what advice do you have to help bring about better working conditions for “visible” minority actors?

E.H. I will have to pass on that question. As the years go by, too little has changed in spite of hard effort from so many people who tried to improve things. Unfortunately, I have fewer and fewer viable solutions to offer other than creating our own things. The situation is very complex.

P.T. This is sad!

E.H. [Silence] I can say this: Casting directors must expand their thinking. Most of the roles they cast with Whites are just as easily cast with the Latino, Black and Asian Americans who have every bit as much talent, get hit just as hard by the IRS when April arrives, and pay the same dollar into movie box offices as the Anglo-Saxons. The results of the recent election reminded people that we are an increasingly diverse nation. It’s time the power brokers in the entertainment industry took note of that as well.

P.T. I could add as a jurist that it would take a lawyer who has thorough legal experience in the movie and TV industries to write a book like All You Need To Know About The Music Business (written by the Harvard alumni lawyer Donald S. Passman) to enlighten aspiring actors and make sure they get fair contracts in the industry.

P.T. You developed and wrote a script about Haïti. Share with us the main lines of your synopsis for your movie script.

E.H. The script begins with an African-American pianist named Leah who arrives in Haiti to give a concert at an open-air theater in Port-au-Prince for the Haitian elite in the day of “Baby Doc” Duvalier. She has lived in Paris as an expatriate for many years and arrives with a White Parisian male who is her manager and lover. During the concert she starts experiencing mysterious dislocations in time that take her back to an earlier Haiti under the reign of the King, Henri Christophe8. During her stay she becomes involved with Jean Vienne, a Haitian aristocrat who had attended the concert. At an after-party, he persuades her to leave her manager and travel north to his estate on the grounds of an 18th century French plantation at Cap Haïtien. It is only there that, on visits to Christophe’s Palace at Milot and his mountain fortress, Citadelle La Ferriere that she is able to “decode” the intrusion of time that had so shaken her on the day of the concert.

She looks at the sprawling ruins of Sans Souci, the jewel of all the palaces built by Christophe and wonders:

“What it was like …
to live in a Black world …
of chateaus … and palaces …
and lords and ladies … dancing
in ballrooms … glistening with
black chandeliers.”

At the end of the film, intensely in love, committed to each other and to the history that has drawn them together they visit the Citadelle as it explodes into an electrical thunderstorm that “crosses them over” and delivers them to a time and a place that has totally obsessed them.

P.T. Your script sounds fascinating! I have Haitian origins, so it is really interesting to hear you talk about your synopsis. Many other historical figures are part of the era covered in your script: the General and the Lieutenant Governor of Saint-Domingue (which became Haïti after its independence) Toussaint Louverture9, Jean-Jacques Dessalines10-- who came into being later Emperor Jacques I of Haïti on September 2, 1804 and proclaimed on January 1, 1804 that Saint-Domingue is the independent Republic of Haïti -- Napoleon Bonaparte I 11 (who invaded a big part of the Western hemisphere) where his troops led by the General Leclerc were outmanoeuvred and thrown out of Saint-Domingue.

E.H. Oh, how interesting! Haïti is a fascinating country.

P.T. Your scenario about Haïti has been submitted decades ago to the biggest names in Hollywood. How do you explain the obstacles you encountered and what do you think it will take to make it a reality?

E.H. Louis Malle, the famous French director who was married to Candice Bergen, was fascinated by it. We discussed the possibility of doing it for two or three years. Nicolas Roeg was also interested. Best of all, for two glorious weeks, Robert Altman agreed to do it on a handshake but later he changed his mind. He decided it was so meticulously crafted it would resist another artist’s effort to put his own “mark” on it. The script was also discussed with Harry Belafonte but nothing ever came of it.

What would it take to make it a reality? The odds against it are huge because it would be so expensive. Originally, I wrote the part of Leah for myself. I even learned the concert piece so I could perform it without a double. It’s a Prokofiev concerto for piano. I have a tape of me playing it along with a record that furnishes the orchestral background. But that was years ago. Now, it would be out of the question. Today there are Black actresses who would be wonderful in the role. Casting would not be a problem but the logistics of the location would be daunting. Particularly at The Citadelle Laferrière because its miles up into the sky on a mountaintop called The Bishop’s Bonnet. For the present, it’s a project that I’ve put aside

P.T. There is a scarcity of female directors out there. So far, only one woman, Kathryn Bigelow won an Oscar as a director and that was only in 2010. Right now, only 5% of directors in Hollywood are females. As a whole, of all the directors, executive producers, writers, cinematographers and editors who worked on the 250 top-grossing films of 2011, only 18% of them were women12. This situation creates a lack of female perspective with very few female-driven movies on screen, likewise for TV. What needs to be done to make sure that the work of women in the film industry is taken more seriously? How can the glass ceiling be shattered?

E.H. [Silence] I think it is unlikely that we will ever return to the days when female stars dominated The Movie Scenes in the way that a Joan Crawford did, or a Lana Turner, a Bette Davis, a Katharine Hepburn, an Ingrid Bergman, a Hedy Lamarr, a Marlene Dietrich and so on.

P.T. These women were in front of the camera.

E.H. I know, but the two things are tied together. In my opinion, movies that starred women as powerful box office draws at the center of a picture … Gene Tierney in Laura, Bette Davis in The Letter, Joan Fontaine in Rebecca … are more familiar territory for a female director to navigate than male blockbusters that are all about guns and explosions. Once Hollywood decided to fight TV by doing things the small screen could not do … special effects, Panavision, Cinemascope, blockbusters … movies about feelings, romance, the electricity between two people fell by the wayside as Hollywood relinquished them to the small screen.

I think it’s very telling that the most visible and successful female director of our time is Kathryn Bigelow, the director of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. You have to ask yourself, “Is she thriving because she’s so good at making movies that are largely about men?” Where does that leave female directors who want to make movies about women? I think it is ironic that it took a war epic movie from a male-dominated perspective to give recognition to a female director. It does not take away the quality of her work but it raises questions about to what extent female issues are truly recognized on that level. In addition, do women need to bring male oriented movies with a particular formula to highlight their career? Honestly, I don’t know how the glass ceiling can be shattered. I don’t see how we can come back to the 40s and 50s era of cinematography where women were front and center in an extraordinary way. I have the feeling that the actual female directors will have to follow the trend with the blockbuster male-perspective movies to sustain their career.

Overall, I don’t know if the great storylines regarding women can become a force with big numbers like before on large screens. I believe that current female movies are less impactful compared to the past. It seems that these days, films are made for teenage boys [laughs]. It is the reality largely. One of the few recent blockbusters that I enjoyed the most is The Bourne Identity films with Matt Damon because it is stimulating intellectually and appealing to me. I think that Sofia Coppola, Francis Coppola’s daughter can bring female sensibilities on screen.

P.T. You have a lot of experience as an actress in front of the camera and you did theater with icons such as James Earl Jones on Broadway. What message do you have for aspiring actors?

E.H. [Silence] I can only speak from my own experience. I am going to say something that you don’t expect because it is not really related to acting as such. For most actors, casting won’t be a problem. So, what I am about to say won’t necessarily apply to most actors. My advice is for those handfuls of actors for whom casting will be central. I am talking about actors who will have an uphill climb securing every single part they will ever play. In other words, I am focusing on “minority” actors like me. For my part, I was and still am a Black actress who looked mixed. I was in a sandwich position where I was considered too White for Black roles and too Black for White ones. Many times, to play a Black role, I was asked to wear makeup from head to toe. Ross Drake who wrote a remarkable article on me for TV Guide depicted perfectly my dilemma: “There are few roles for Black actresses and even fewer for those who don’t look the part.” The struggle throughout my lifetime to get parts was so dehumanising. I survived this because I began to write, which allowed me to withstand what I had to go through as an actress. Writing saved me! It kept my creativity alive and allowed me to vent my frustrations. When you are only an actor you depend on somebody else to hire you. Writing gives you a sense of total control. You feel a power of God because you are in charge of creating your world. So, aspiring actors need to broaden their horizons and have to develop diverse skills for longevity while looking for mentors. It is the greatest recipe for not being pigeonholed, and to accomplish that you must not be afraid to try new things. Overall, the newcomers need to learn and master as much as possible all aspects of the entertainment industry they want to embrace: TV, movies and so on.

P.T. Thanks Ms. Holly for the legacy you are giving us, especially with your powerful memoir. It was an honor to interview you!

E.H. Thank you for the excellent, thoughtful, carefully prepared interview!

The book is available on www.amazon.com or.ca and www.barnesandnoble.com 

To read more information about Ellen Holly and the book, click on this link:


Book’s endorsements:

“Read This, Please, and Believe it!”- Dr. Bill Cosby Ed. D.

“A Tiger Awaits” - Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis

“Uncommon Powers of Observation” - Publishers’ Weekly

“Many readers will remember Ellen Holly, who played the ground-breaking "I passed for white" role on the daytime drama One Life to Live. Born into an upper-middle class African American family, Holly was sure she could have it all -- a career in the theater, a husband, and a family. As a light-skinned black woman, she suffered professionally on two fronts: with few roles for black women anyway, she was further penalized by being too fair to play even those. What will haunt readers here is the raw emotion behind Holly's often quite elegant prose. This is heartfelt, often brutal stuff, and Holly does not let you turn away from it.” Ilene Cooper – Booklist

“Holly's autobiography of an Afro-American actress documents a life filled with both achievement and tragedy. From her early 1950s acting experiences to her struggles with skin considered too white to properly portray a black woman, this documents the major paths of Holly's acting career. An inspired autobiographical account.” -- Midwest Book Review

“A rich history of middle class Black America… the heyday of Jack and Jill, the Links, Camp Atwater, the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club… Revisit the old Black society… Travel to Black-owned summer homes at Greenwood Lake, Sag Harbor… Read about her experiences of working with many entertainment legends of theater and Hollywood. She tells it all, including the truth about her relationships with Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier…” – The Sarasota Herald Tribune

“Unique… The book functions on many levels: a history of what Holly terms the “old Black middle class”; a chronicle of the Black theatre world in New York in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s; an often grim and enraging peek at the segregated and sexist worlds of Broadway, Hollywood and TV-land; an occasionally heartbreaking tale of one woman’s endlessly bad choices in men and the lengths she went to make them right. A sense of humor that can be cutting, wickedly funny and always on the mark.’ – Jill Nelson, author of Volunteer Slavery, in The Women’s Review of Books.

Selected Filmography including television series:

1959 Take a Giant Step
1963 Sam Benedict
1963-64 The Nurses
1964 Dr. Kildare
1968-81 and 1984-85 One Life To Live ABC , she played the role of Carla Gray
1973 Cops and Robbers
1974 King Lear
1986 Spenser: For Hire
1988 School Daze
1989-90 In the Heat of the Night
1988-93 The Guiding Light, CBS, she played the role of Judge Frances Collier
2002 10,000 Black Men Named George

Famous Works

Selected Stage Appearances

• (Off-Broadway debut) Tatiana, "The Anniversary" and Naida Gisben and Sharon Guilders, "A Switch in Time," Two for Fun (double-bill), GreenwichMews Theatre, New York City, 1955.
• Slave girl, Salome, Davenport Theatre, New York City, 1955.
• Bianca, A Florentine Tragedy, Davenport Theatre, 1955.
• (Broadway debut) Stephanie, Too Late the Phalarope, Belasco Theatre, New York City, 1956.
• Rich woman's daughter, Tevya and His Daughters, Carnegie Hall Playhouse, New York City, 1957.
• Desdemona, Othello, Belvedere Lake Theatre, 1958.
• Elizabeth Falk, Face of a Hero, Eugene O'Neill Theatre, New York City, 1960.
• Rosa, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, East Eleventh Street Theatre, New York City, 1962.
• Cille Morris, Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright, Booth Theatre, New York City, 1962.
• Iras, Antony and Cleopatra, New York Shakespeare Festival (NYSF), Delacorte Theatre, New York City, 1963.
• Duchess of Hapsburg, Funny House of a Negro, East End Theatre, NewYork City, 1964.
• Tatiana, A Midsummer Night's Dream, NYSF, Delacorte Mobile Theatre, 1964.
• Katherine, King Henry V, NYSF, Delacorte Mobile Theatre, 1965.
• Katherine, The Taming of the Shrew, NYSF, Delacorte Mobile Theatre, 1965.
• "Clara Passmore Who Is the Virgin Mary Who Is the Bastard Who Is the Owl," The Owl Answers, White Barn Theatre, Westport, CT, then Theatre de Lys, New York City, 1965.
• Lady Macbeth, Macbeth, NYSF, Delacorte Mobile Theatre, 1966.
An Evening of Negro Poetry and Folk Music, Delacorte Theatre, 1966, produced as A Hand Is on the Gate, Longacre Theatre, New York City, 1966.
• Marguerite Gautier, Camino Real, Playhouse in the Park, Cincinnati, OH, 1968.
Crime on Goat Island, Playhouse in the Park, Cincinnati, 1968.
• Also appeared in several roles, including Sally Dupre and narrator for Aunt Bess, in John Brown's Body; appeared in Orchids in the Moonlight, American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, MA; member of company, Playhouse in the Park, Cincinnati, OH, 1968.
• Varya, The Cherry Orchard, NYSF, Public/Anspacher Theatre, New York City, 1973.
• Regan, King Lear, NYSF, Delacorte Theatre, 1973.

Major Tours

• Gypsy palmist and courtesan, The Comedy of Errors, National Repertory Theatre, U.S. cities, 1967.
• Hippolita, Tis Pity She's a Whore, U.S. cities, 1974-75.

Other Television Performances:

Credits; Television Appearances; Series
• Also appeared as Sally Travers, Love of Life, CBS.
Credits; Television Appearances; Movies
• Amy, Sergeant Matlovich vs. the U.S. Air Force, NBC, 1978.
Credits; Television Appearances; Episodic
• Tituba, Odyssey, CBS, 1957.
• Regan, "King Lear", Theater in America (also known as Great Performances), PBS, 1974.
• Mrs. Robbins, "High School Narc",  ABC Afterschool Special, ABC, 1985.
• Also appeared in episodes of The Big Story, NBC ; Confidential File, syndicated ; The Defenders, CBS ; Look Up and Live, CBS; and Dr. Kildare, NBC.


(1) Maiden name, Arnold

(2) Ellen Holly also wrote later for The New York Times a powerful answer to the article entitled “Where are the Films about Real Black Men and Women?”

(3) The fact that Carla was actually Black was not revealed to viewers for at least six months after the beginning of OLTL. The announcement was a major shock to some viewers, and the soap opera was boycotted by several Southern affiliates. Nevertheless, the controversy attracted a lot of attention and ratings shot up for the then-fledgling soap.

(4) Her annual increases were 37.50.

(5) To get a regular salary, Holly also had to work as a library clerk following her dismissal, at the age of fifty-four, from her role as Carla when she was not working as an actress.

(6) http://books.google.ca/books

(7) 1968, the year when OLTL began, was also the period when the African-American Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968) ended and the year of the assassination of Dr.  MLK.  So, there was still turmoil in terms of race relations in the country.

(8) In 1779, he was a member of an armed group sent by the French to help the Americans defend Savannah, Georgia against the British.  The King Henri Christophe was the father of the Haitian currency, the gourde.  In the 19th century, he built monuments and palaces such as the remarkable Citadelle Laferrière fortress near Cap-Haïtien and the Sans Souci Palace.

(9) Louverture’s parents came from Dahomey’s kingdom (present day Benin) and his father was a powerful chief in that country before he was enslaved.  Toussaint Louverture, the only literate officer in the revolt, led the enslaved revolution that brought Haiti independence from France in 1804.

(10) During his youth, when he was enslaved, in protest he joined the ranks of the maroons at a young age.  In 1792, he became a partisan of the enslaved uprising led by Boukman, an enslaved man of Jamaican origin.

(11) Bonaparte wanted to take control of a big part of America and his Saint-Domingue defeat made the French empire weaker with the loss of Louisiana (purchased by the U.S. in 1803) and so on.  The Haitian revolution is an historical epic because Bonaparte’s defeat made him leave the Western hemisphere.  However, slavery would be reinstated later in all the French colonies (except Haïti which was independent) until 1848.  The fall of Bonaparte in the early 19th century, revolutionary movements sprang up in several European countries.

(12) According to San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film’s annual Celluloid Ceiling survey.