Ellen Holly, ONE LIFE TO LIVE, Racism & The Soap Opera, Part 3: “He Made it Clear That We Were Enemies. . . and I Was Made to Pay”
Posted by Kevin Mulcahy Jr.
“In fact, if you look me up on IMDB, you'll find only two jobs that lasted more than one week in my whole career. ONE LIFE TO LIVE, that employed me for 17 years, and after it was over, the two years I had playing Judge Collier on THE GUIDING LIGHT. Those are the only two jobs I ever had that lasted more than a week.”
WE LOVE SOAPS TV recently spent an afternoon with the 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.
In the third installment of our exclusive series on the life and times of Ellen Holly, we begin to relate some admittedly ugly episodes from the annals of soap opera history. Some of these behind-the-scenes stories are unpleasant, and even shocking. Some involve ONE LIFE TO LIVE employees behaving badly. We share these blemishes from the past in order to help prevent our beloved genre from making the same sorts of mistakes again. Sunlight can be the best disinfectant, and as long as themes from Ellen Holly's life story continue to resonate in our coverage of the far-too-few black dramatic television actors of today, we will endeavor to let the sunlight in.
Let's not allow any repetition, today, of Ellen Holly's racially charged, tumultuous experiences at ONE LIFE TO LIVE in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Now that she is, for the most part, retired, Ms. Holly is more willing to share (although she does admit to being fearful, to this day, of at least one of the producers she discussed) and, especially since she tends to be so soft-spoken and understated when it comes to instances of bigotry, we consider her an unimpeachable source. Every time we could locate alternative sources, they have corroborated Ms. Holly. In many instances, she mentions unbelievably racist treatment only in passing, and not to complain. So on those occasions when she is offended, when the situation is that extreme, we think it's worth taking notice.
A fine example of how racially charged Ms. Holly's producers' behavior could get, but still not elicit a complaint from her, is from the more cosmopolitan and sophisticated world (compared to TV) of New York City's Broadway theaters. To land her first gig, Ms. Holly was forced to go to such lengths to navigate around her God-given coloration, that most contemporary sensibilities may find her efforts perverse, or extreme--but she (for all intents and purposes) laughs it off.
Her story about the winning strategy that landed her her first lead role on Broadway demonstrates three important points. First of all, Ms. Holly was committed to do almost anything to land the opportunity to showcase her extraordinary talent. Second, any and all resistance to her being cast was entirely and exclusively superficial; literally skin-deep. Third, she has the capacity to suffer an enormous amount of racist insult before ever complaining about her treatment.
“The reason I got the part was that my father was a brilliant chemical engineer who was known in the protective coatings industry for being an innovator in using titanium in paint, and he had created a whole spectrum of lacquers and glosses for DuPont and whomever. My father made me such an extraordinary make-up that I looked mahogany, but I could get on the subway and sit next to you, and you did not have a clue that that was not my real color.”
Unbelievable, but true: Ellen Holly got her first big break on Broadway because, as the daughter of a gifted scientist, she was able to paint herself to appear considerably darker. (For more on the challenges of being not only to dark, but also too light to be cast, see, "Ellen Holly, ONE LIFE TO LIVE, Racism & The Soap Opera, Part 2: "India has its Untouchables, America had its Uncastables"
“My father got me the job,” Ms. Holly confirms.
“The first reading that I did for them, they said, ah-ha, how interesting. Come back next time in make-up. So, I came back in my father's make-up, and to this day I can see the two producers coming up to me and saying, both of them with their hands out, 'Congratulations, you're our Stefanie.'”
The role in question, “Stephanie” in Too late the Phalarope, a adaptation of an Alan Paton (Cry, the Beloved Country) novel, was described by Walter Kerr (the Pulitzer-winning critic who has a Broadway theater named for him) in the October 12, 1956 New York Herald-Tribune as “a bush girl who is as promiscuous and thieving as she is appealing.” Kerr's glowing review of her performance: “Ellen Holly's arrogantly sensuous native girl, proud of her wiles and stubbornly honest about her own corruption, is perfect playing.”
Our research on Phalarope reveals similarly excellent reviews for Ms. Holly across the board, from the New York Post, NY World Telegram, The New York Times, and so on. Her talent was unparalleled and unassailable, but she had to literally change the color of her skin in order to gain the opportunity to demonstrate it.
It's remarkable that when Ms. Holly recounts how she had to literally color herself a deeper hue in order to even be considered for a role, one for which she was later deemed “perfect,” she somehow speaks without regret or bitterness. In fact, she considers her Broadway experiences to have been far more fair and equitable than anything she experienced in the world of daytime TV.
One gets the sense, in fact, that Ms. Holly continually downplays bigotry and grants producers and “showrunners” the benefit of the doubt. One can only wonder, then, at how extreme an affront would have to have been, in order to move her to tears, even still, today. How awful were the circumstances that led her to leave ONE LIFE TO LIVE?
“There had been a change in the producer who was the head of the studio, and because I had supported the previous producer when ABC was trying to kick her out, he called me up to the office his first day on the show and said, 'You're the only person in the entire cast who has not congratulated me on becoming the producer.'
"He made it clear that we were enemies, and with every single thing that happened in relation to that storyline, I was made to pay," Ms. Holly recalls.
“First of all, they cast the only person I had asked them not to cast [to play opposite me]. [The producer] even called me up to his office beforehand, and told me, 'I'm about to cast this gentleman (he said his name) in the role of Jack Scott.' I said, 'I wish you wouldn't! Please, I can tell immediately, like oil and water, it's just not going to work. No fault of his, no fault of my, but I can tell from the audition, it won't work. This is going to be deadly.'"
“His response was, 'That's too bad, I'm going to do it.'"
“I had been so good, because I know men don't like tears, they feel like it's dirty pool. Not these days, of course, I mean, everybody's crying!” she laughs.
“Including all our politicians! But back then, the guys didn't do it, just the girls. But I really started crying. I said, 'Don't do this, please, I'm not only the person that has to play opposite this guy, I'm the writer who created the character!' His response was, 'Well, there are times when we know better. That's the way it's going to be, so get yourself together.'”
Ms. Holly began to receive letters and phone calls from the Black theater community. Some went so far as to warn her, “He'll lose you the job.” At the time she thought such talk was “little more than hyperbole,” but then, he began his contract--and immediately, trouble started. It started weeks before any there was any interaction with Ms. Holly. Just as they often do today, new characters were often added to the canvass weeks before they have their first scenes with their intended love interest.
“For three or four weeks, I was told by the cast that he was flubbing all over the place; that he didn't learn his lines; that they were having to redo takes, and so on. The producer was sitting there up in his control room, and he knew what was going on the whole time. He knew it had nothing to do with me. But once I started working with him, he blamed it all on me.
“He called me up to his office, and shook a finger in my face. He yelled, 'You're intimidating him, you're sabotaging him, and you're trying to make your predictions come true.' Then he shouted, 'Cut that out, do you understand?'
It was just the beginning.
“I had to go through two years of that on a three year contract," Ms. Holly continues. "Every day I went in to work, and I had to pray that someone else's work didn't open me up for attack. I had put up with everything I could possibly put up with in the situation, but when my contract was up for renewal, I had to make a decision.
“I went over his head and made an appointment with the Senior Vice President in Charge of Daytime Television. I told her I needed the job desperately, that this is the only job I've ever had on a camera that lasted for more than a week. 'I have to be able to sign! But for the sake of my own health, unless you can change what's going on, I can't sign,' I said.
“She clucked, and such, like she was very concerned, but nothing changed. And so I told her that I could not sign, and she took me out to lunch and tried to tell me, 'Oh, Ellen, talented as you are, I'm sure you want to move on.'
“I told her to get real! I asked, do you see anyone else on the screen that looks like me? No, you don't. There's no place to go, for me. Don't you dare say that's why I'm leaving! I'm not going toward anything. I'm getting away from something. I'm getting away from rotten treatment, and I want you to be clear that that's why I'm going.
“She thanked me for not going to the National Enquirer. That was how the luncheon ended.”
A document dated June 20, 1980 corroborates the fact that the ONE LIFE TO LIVE producers had, by that time, fallen into a pattern of acting against their (and their show's) own self-interest in order to marginalize (and then harass) the popular and talented—but dark-skinned—star. It's a simple chart showing the Nielsen Ratings for the week, reproduced below:
Ellen Holly explains the significance:
“I had never again been used the way they used me those first two years. But then, in June, 1980, somebody made a mistake, and gave me a five day week. This week, the Carla storyline was 80% of the show! She was on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.
"I was very concerned about 80% of everything being on my shoulders, so I went downstairs that week to the stage door, where they posted the Nielsens. My jaw practically fell off. I had hoped that I could keep up my end of things. I had no idea that the ratings would spike so dramatically that our assistant producer, Charlotte Wiell, would write, 'Super Ratings! Thanks, everyone. Charl' And for one moment, I fooled myself into thinking the reaction to me would be the same as it would be if a white star had done that.
"And then, a white actress on the show by the name of Kathy Glass came up to me and snarled, 'I bet you think you're responsible for this.' Well, I laughed my best “Uncle Tom” laugh and I said, 'Not necessarily.' She backed down, and she had no political traction, so I knew she wasn't going to be any trouble. But I knew there were people who did have a lot more pull than Kathy (And I liked Kathy!) and I realized I would never see a five day week again.
"Sure enough, I never would be given a five day week again. I'm sure it went up the food chain, and somebody said, 'Who let her off her chain? Put her back where she belongs, and don't let that happen again.' And it didn't.”
Among the ONE LIFE TO LIVE fans, and in the soap opera press, Carla's departure was universally mourned. Perhaps Soap Opera Stars put it best in April, 1981.
“We will miss Carla, played by the wonderful Ellen Holly,” they wrote. “Maybe she'll be back, but we wouldn't blame her if she stays away. She's a terrific actress given far too little to do.” But Ellen Holly did return to ONE LIFE TO LIVE, rising to even greater heights than before, and once again, suffering a terrible backlash. Look for “Ellen Holly, ONE LIFE TO LIVE, Racism & The Soap Opera, Part 4” this Monday.