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. In part four of our series on the life and times of Ellen Holly, we explore the mystery and mistreatment surrounding her termination.
She returned to ONE LIFE TO LIVE more popular than ever, with fresh hope of a long, rewarding career and dreams of building a family. Before long, she found herself being spit on by then executive producer Paul Rauch; but the beginning of her final contract was surprisingly auspicious.
When the prolific Agnes Nixon started LOVING, she reshuffled her producers, and Jean Arley took over at ONE LIFE TO LIVE. “The invited me out to lunch,” Ms. Holly recalls. Jean Arley was so wonderful to me, I thought, oh, well, maybe this can work for once.
“They wanted me to come back, but they started talking at the floor of what I had earned before. I said, I'm not going back unless they will double my money. They were paying me in five figures. This time, I wanted a whole different life. I said, 'I'm not going back unless they pay me $150,000.'
“The only way you can make money is if you don't care if you lose the job. I was so furious with them, for so many reasons that I haven't even gone into, I wasn't going back unless I could change my life and make my life work. One thing I was desperate to do was adopt children. It was devastating to me that I hadn't married and had kids. I started having fantasies about being able to adopt kids and give them a first-class ride.”
Ms. Holly even began to work with an accountant to put together a plan.
“I turned myself into a corporation, set up $50,000 to go to me, as my salary; $50,000 for Uncle Sam and $50,000 to go into a defined benefit pension plan. I put some money down on a darling little studio. Everything looked absolutely glorious. Jean Arley was fabulous. And she was gone in a year. And in came someone who would make that other guy look like a prince.
In 1984, Paul Rauch took over as executive producer at ONE LIFE TO LIVE.
“I saw this furious somebody in an Ernest Hemingway safari suit, stamping across the set, looking like he was about to smack me in the face. He was so close, his spit flew in my face, and I had to pin my arms by my side, because I didn't want to wipe off my face--because I knew that would be taken as an insult.
“He said, 'Get that hair off your neck. You're the D.A.,' and he made a military turn and then went stamping across the set. At first, my gut said, 'You're toast, there go your kids.”
“I didn't know what to make of it because it was done so openly—the other guy was smart enough to keep the door closed and only give me the business when nobody else was around. This guy was saying this to me where there was an open set where the crew was right there, there were actors, everybody could see it. The fact that it was done in public; my mind starting playing tricks. I thought to myself, he had to have just been through a vetting with top brass, there's no way that a new hire would publicly go after a member of the cast unless that person had been identified as a target.
“I was in a panic. I flew to my little studio I had just bought, I got out a pair of scissors, and I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and did a horrible job on my hair. Mind you, he treated me like I had hair like. . . Ann Coulter, for instance. It was truly on my neck; it didn't even come to my shoulders. But I was ready to shave it and go bald if that's what he said.
“I came in the next day and my hair was gone. He looked at me, and he was. . . shocked. I thought, 'What's his problem. I did what he wanted me to do?'
“It took me a while to figure out what was going on. What he was trying to do was start an abrasive relationship with me, so we would have some ugly back-and-forth and he could get me that way, but I had obeyed his orders. So he had to figure out something that I couldn't do. So, he chose my voice.
Ellen Holly was told that she had a voice “that was an offense to the public; that should be taken of the air.”
“He posited it as if it were a crisis!” she laughs. “It was made very clear that I should change my voice, but from what to what he refused to say. He told both directors, tried to enlist them, Peter Minor and David Pressman, but they refused. David wouldn't even discuss it, he said, 'That's ridiculous.' Peter realized what a beating I was taking, and when I asked him what he wanted me to change it to, he said, 'he won't say, he won't characterize it in any way. He won't describe it in any way that could pin him down. But here, here's a voice teacher, and I know this is crazy, but if you start with a voice teacher, you'll be obeying his orders, what can he do?'
“I knew it was crazy, but he was such a weird character, I wondered if maybe he had ears like a dog, and maybe heard something in my voice nobody else had heard. I called the teacher and said, 'What's supposed to be wrong?' and I told her 'I don't know, they won't tell me.” She told me to go back and ask them! As if that were the simplest thing in the world to do.”
Ms. Holly worked up the courage to ask Rauch exactly what she should be working on in voice lessons, but his response was less than helpful.
“He said, 'I can't put my finger on it, but you better do something about it.' That's a direct quote. It was all such nonsense. All it was was to find something to beat me to death with, over and over and over again, so that, when there were only two or three days to the close of my contract, he could call me into his office and say, first thing in the morning, with a 14 hour day ahead of me, “when your contract's up, we're dropping you. You're just not worth it to us.”
In a sense, the worst part was yet to come.
“After they found out they wouldn't suffer any kind of consequences, they went after Lillian Hayman. I thought [the harassment] was completely specific to me, I didn't know it was generic. I thought I had just come across someone who just could not stand me. Lillian called me up and told me that after a perfectly routine day, she was in the parking garage and they dispatched a clerk to tell her, 'the producer wanted to know you've just worked your last day on the show,' and then fled.
“And that was the end of us. That's how we ended on the show.”
Why did the ABC brass (at that time, ABC had just been purchased by Capital Cities, years before Disney) want to get rid of two audience favorites, who were original cast members to boot? Ms. Holly has never been given an explanation, but we asked her to share her best guess with us.
“In 1983 ONE LIFE TO LIVE celebrated its 15th anniversary. This was the first, real blowout anniversary the show had had. It was Jean Arley who was at he head of the studio, and she did something remarkable.
Lillian Hayman and I were the only remaining original stars of the show. We were honored as the only remaining stars of the show, and a bank of photographers took our picture with Tony Thomopoulos, the head of ABC at the time.
A lot people looked at that, and looked at Erica Slezak, playing the white lead, sitting on the sidelines and watching two Black women being honored as the veterans of that show, and felt that something was awfully wrong. Just like a lot of people look at the presidency and feel that the wrong person, a usurper, was in a place that rightfully goes to someone else, and must be removed. That was our death knell, I think. I don't see any other way, because we didn't cost them any money, we were extraordinarily professional, we had given tremendous value to the show, we were always on time, we always knew our lines, and we always did everything in one take.
“The idea of celebrating all those celebrating all those anniversaries with the two of us as their stars was just something they could not deal with, and a lot of changes had to be made.”
It is interesting to note that on ONE LIFE TO LIVE's long-running sister shows, GENERAL HOSPITAL and ALL MY CHILDREN, original cast members have had a clear tendency to remain on the show (in time, often coming and going as they please) until their passing, or the cancellation of the show. Holly cites Emily McLaughlin, John Beradino, Frances Heflin, Ruth Warrick and Susan Lucci as actors that fit this pattern.
But did ABC make a concerted effort to avoid decades of non-white faces leading a famous cast? We'll never know for sure.
- Ellen Holly, ONE LIFE TO LIVE, Racism & The Soap Opera, Part 1: Agnes Nixon & Bringing The Black Audience To ABC
- Ellen Holly, ONE LIFE TO LIVE, Racism & The Soap Opera, Part 2: "India has its Untouchables, America had its Uncastables"
- 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”