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Ellen Holly, America's First Black Soap Opera Star, Dead At 92

Ellen Holly starred on
Ellen Holly starred on

Ellen Holly starred on "One Life To Live" for more than a decade.

Ellen Holly, the first Black actor to star in a soap opera with a lead role on “One Life To Live,” died Wednesday at a hospital in the Bronx, New York. She was 92.

Her publicist confirmed her death, saying she died in her sleep.

Holly began her career on stage, debuting on Broadway in 1956. She went on to work with James Earl Jones, Jack Lemmon and Cicely Tyson.

Her hit role on “One Life to Live” came after she published a column in The New York Times in 1968 describing her difficulties finding roles as a Black woman with lighter skin, backed by the “turbulent and racially divisive 1960s.” A producer chose the actress for the role of Carla Gray after she read the piece, titled “How Black Do You Have To Be.”

Holly would go on to star on the soap for more than a decade, from 1968 to 1980 and again from 1983 to 1985. Her storylines included a love triangle between her character and two doctors, one white and one Black. The soap became a popular feature on daytime television, and other programs, including “All My Children” and “General Hospital,” later featured major storylines involving Black characters.

Holly's hit role on “One Life to Live” came after she published a column in The New York Times in 1968 describing her difficulties finding roles as a Black woman with lighter skin.
Holly's hit role on “One Life to Live” came after she published a column in The New York Times in 1968 describing her difficulties finding roles as a Black woman with lighter skin.

Holly's hit role on “One Life to Live” came after she published a column in The New York Times in 1968 describing her difficulties finding roles as a Black woman with lighter skin.

She later went on to appear in other television series, including “The Guiding Light” and “In The Heat of the Night.”

Her family remembered her as a boundary-breaking actress with a long career on screen and stage.

“Ellen Holly was a trailblazer who lead an incredible life,” her family said in a statement. “We hope that her life and career will serve as an inspiration for others to follow their dreams and passions. While we will miss her extraordinary personality, we can only celebrate a life remarkably lived.”

In the 1990s Holly took the civil service examination and became a librarian. She worked at the White Plains Public Library later in life, calling her years there some of her happiest in an autobiography published in 1996.

Holly is survived by several grand-nieces and cousins.

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