WE LOVE SOAPS TV recently spent an afternoon with legendary actress Ellen Holly, who played Carla on ONE LIFE TO LIVE from 1968 to 1985. We asked Ms. Holly to share her story with us; her early career, how she came to ONE LIFE, her experiences over the years, and what happened when she left.
We chose to kick off the series with a largely positive and familiar tale, and so in Part One we described the unlikely partnership (between Ellen Holly and Agnes Nixon) that led to what may still be, to this day, television's most innovative, fascinating and influential use of race as a TV show's central plot device.
In the second part of our series focusing on Ms. Holly's life and times, we now pivot to a more frank (and somewhat unsettling) discussion, one where race is a major factor in the business of making daytime soap operas. Ms. Holly takes us through the subtleties, and ironies, surrounding the irrational (yet very real) challenges faced by actresses of color trying to land roles on camera in the 60s and 70s. We'll learn about Ms. Holly's early, illustrious theater career, see why the character of Carla was something of a contemporary paradigm, and also touch upon the inevitable exploitation of undervalued minority talent. Join us on a journey through hidden soap opera (and United States) history, as Ms. Holly guides us through tricky creative and racial landscapes that continue to fascinate because they continue, to a certain extent, to endure.
We begin in the 1960s, when Ms. Holly was attempting to leverage theatrical accolades and several great on-stage successes into a lucrative role on TV. It was the expected career path for an actress of her caliber--that is, at least, a white actress of her caliber--but taking that next step, into the world of television, was proving to be unreasonably difficult.
It didn't seem to matter that Ms. Holly had stunned audiences in several starring roles on Broadway, even appearing opposite great thespians such as Jack Lemmon (left) and Barry Sullivan. Off-Broadway she was cast opposite James Earl Jones in multiple plays--including Macbeth, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl and The Cherry Orchard. When Ellen Holly started on ONE LIFE TO LIVE, it turns out that she wasn't at all the "newbie" that we've so often been led to believe. In fact, in the meritocracy of high-end New York City theater, Holly was very much in demand. However, TV was different.
"Agnes [Nixon] always says about me, 'She couldn't get a black part.' And it sounds like I had never worked before," Ms. Holly notes. "I had a huge reputation in the New York theater. What she forgets to say was that it was a question of not being able to get a black part on camera, which is a whole different thing."
"I was not the "Poor Little Match Girl" who had never had a part. I had a huge career in the theater. The problem was--and the reason I was getting out of the (acting) profession before I got "The Call" [from ONE LIFE TO LIVE] was that I had a casting problem. The only thing I had been able to do was theater. And I had a glorious career in the theater; I'm very grateful for it. I was very fortunate.
"I was thought to be a major American actress by Elia Kazan, Lee Strasberg and Michael Kahn--and Joseph Papp, for whom I had already played half of the roles in the Shakespeare canon. But theater doesn't pay. For instance, the ten years I was a leading lady at the New York Shakespeare Festival, I made $85.00 a week.
"But I was considered an 'Uncastable.' Just like India has it's Untouchables, America had its 'Uncastables'. I was considered an 'Uncastable' on a camera."
What does it mean to be an "Uncastable"? Ms. Holly explains:
"At the time, and we're talking around 1968, there were only certain roles for ethnic performers. For instance, for Asian American girls, there were so few parts, the two "tokens" who would work all the time were France Nuyen and Nancy Kwan. Those were the Asian girls. The Latina girls were Rita Moreno, and Katy Jurado, who would play in westerns.
"However, with us, there was a further problem. In addition to being limited to the Black roles available to us (the smaller window of opportunity) we had to go through a second filter. With the "one drop rule" as an African American, if you had any African blood--even if it was only one drop--you were lobbed over to the "black" side of the ledger. We came in all kinds of colors, everything from white as milk to black as a piece of anthrocite coal, and everything in between.
"So we then went through a second filter because the TV and film industry preferred to use the central part of the spectrum. Women would play romantic roles, and they were very fussy about what we would look like. They would choose women from, say, a light mocha, like a Halle Berry or a Lena Horne, to a Cicely Tyson, anything in between there. Anyone who fell outside either end of that spectrum was considered too light or too dark.
"You were just chopped, and considered 'Uncastable,'" concludes Ms. Holly.
We Love Soaps located some fascinating corroboration of this notion of "the Uncastables." Our favorite is an article from Ebony magazine in 1975, featuring Janice Kingslow and Hilda Simms, which we have reproduced. Click on the image to expand.
The headline reads, "The Problems of Light-Skinned Blacks" with a caption: "Janice Kingslow (l.) and Hilda Simms shared the problem of being 'black actresses' with light compexions and 'non-Negro' features. The strain was so great for Miss Kingslow that she suffered emotional problems, which sent her to hospitals on several occasions. In his article, Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint discusses problems of 'like-whites.'"
Ms. Holly herself is featured, with the caption: "Ellen Holly is so light-skinned that she has had difficulty obtaining roles calling for a 'black actress.' In an early TV documentary (right, c.), she portrays a black girl who 'passes' in order to get a job as a typist. On the other hand, blacks as dark-skinned as fashion model Naomi Sims (below, with escort Michael Findlay) once suffered rejection on jobs and in both black and white communities."
For fans of daytime soap opera history, a little bell surely went off at the phrase, "she portrays a black girl who 'passes.'" After all, this loaded cultural issue of "passing" was so central to the launch (and success) of ONE LIFE TO LIVE, as well as the establishment of its groundbreakingly original Carla storyline, and, finally, its lucrative cultivation of a largely untappped audience of black, middle-class viewers (see Ellen Holly, Part 1).
The situation, then, that Ms. Holly found herself in was, in fact, extraordinary, and the uncomfortable paradox of her lead role in ONE LIFE TO LIVE has not been lost on Ms. Holly.
"What is so interesting is that we were having our problems because--we're so proud of being Black actresses, that we don't want to pass for white: we're insisting, 'We are Black actresses, use us as what we are.' The irony of our careers, just to begin with, is: the one thing that we will not do in real life ("pass" for white) is the only thing they will let us play on a camera. That's how your whole life and career become ironic from the very outset."
For better or for worse, anyone familiar with Carla's story can see that it was clear that the beautiful Shakesperean "Uncastable" was almost certainly the only actress who could do justice to Agnes Nixon's shockingly insightful and revealing script, one revolving around a light-skinned Black woman.
Who else could better empathize with Nixon's challenges in writing from Carla's perspective (Ms Holly even wrote some parts of the script!)? Who else could appear white enough on a Friday to outrage fans that had watched her kiss a black character, yet black enough on the following Monday to outrage the same rapt bigots who are suddenly "offended" at the memory of her romantic relationship with a white character? And of course, who else had a theater resume that was as strong as hers, that could "justify" creation of the new role (instead of another white character) and then go on to succeed as the first black lead in daytime?
Decades after Ellen Holly's premiere on ONE LIFE TO LIVE, it's still as clear as ever that she was uncannily perfect for the role. And there she was, at the time, looking to transition into television at exactly the right moment for ONE LIFE's producers to swoop her up. Surely, the powers that be did everything they could to woo her, to incentive-ize her, to encourage her to take the role? At the very least, wasn't she approached with the same respect (and compensation) offered any other foundational leading lady on a popular, lucrative soap? Unfortunately, as we'll see in Part Three, she was not.
It's one thing to capitalize on an unfortunate social phenomenon in order to sell a soap opera. After all, early ONE LIFE TO LIVE didn't just incorporate racial tensions to make money from commercial time slots. It also ended up making a culturally valuable impact on some of the more subtly, and incidiously, racist attitudes of the day, while portraying a realistic--if somewhat sensational--tale of one young, black woman's struggles and romances, with respect and accuracy. We Love Soaps celebrates the way Agnes Nixon managed to put those racial tensions to work for her in that amazing script, helping her create the iconic show. However, as it turns out, that's not where ABC's venal leveraging of the race issue ended.
In the third installment of our special series on the life and times of the legendary Ellen Holly, we take on the uncomforatable but important job of cataloguing many of the incidents in which ABC TV et al actively deceived, diminished and even harassed her, in order to take the greatest possible advantage of the fact that it would be very difficult for her, as a light-skinned Black actress, to find good work elsewhere. Look for "Ellen Holly, ONE LIFE TO LIVE, Racism & The Soap Opera, Part 3" this Friday.
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