Saturday, December 17, 2011

OPEN LETTER: Ellen Holly Reveals The True Story Of Her Time At ONE LIFE TO LIVE

Legendary actress Ellen Holly has published "An Open Letter to the Fans and Historians of ONE LIFE TO LIVE". Holly was an original cast member of ONE LIFE in 1968 and was a fan favorite immediately and throughout her run which ended in 1985. She was not the first black actor on contract with a daytime soap but was certainly the first black star of daytime and paved the way for future stars like Debbi Morgan, Darnell Williams, Kristoff St. John, Victoria Rowell, Tamara Tunie and others.

For any longtime fan of daytime television, the lack of minority characters onscreen has been obvious. As the minority population of the United States has grown in the past 20 years, the volume of minority characters on soaps has actually decreased. Why is this?

Stars like Rowell have spoken out in interviews (and on Twitter) about the lack of diversity not only in front of the camera but behind the scenes as well. What has been missing was tangible evidence, numbers, that paint a clearer picture that can not be dismissed as sour grapes.

Hall paints a vivid picture of how she was hired, what her salary was compared to the other "stars" of ONE LIFE, what really happened when she was fired from the soap, and the timeline of when she found out damning information which lead to her writing this new open letter.

Below are a few of the more interesting quotes:

In the book I would later write…ONE LIFE: The Autobiography of an African American Actress… I expressed my ultimate belief that I’d been selected for use as a temporary “gimmick” that, in a unique political time, could rocketboost a payload of white stars into orbit… an exotic “freak” that, stationed outside the circus tent, could attract the folks on the fairway and lure them inside to see the show.

Once they were there and both Nixon soaps were in easy orbit I was taken out of The Showbox as Exhibit A …probably because I’d already aced 90% of what I’d been hired to do.

The rest of the years turned into a holding action. I was yanked back and put on a leash by a management that behaved like an adversary. I was treated as if I were an 800 pound gorilla that would attract too much attention unless forcibly restrained. Now boxed in and fenced out of the main action, I was probably kept on the margins for the sole purpose of keeping the black audience in place that was so critical to the ratings.

Although she never dealt with me personally, with her historic legacy ever on her mind, Nixon continued to discuss me to the press as one of her most valued stars. Although I was poorly paid, poorly treated, and, behind the scenes, denied the game… to press and public she bent over backwards to continue extolling the name. As a result, the press continued to treat me as a legitimate Superstar.
We would love to know what Ms. Nixon said when asked about this disparity.

Although Nixon paid her white stars lavish salaries she had pinched every penny she paid me. Her company, Creative Horizons, had refused to deal with agents and had presented me with contract renewals that were always labeled as strictly non-negotiable. After she sold the show to ABC in 1973, to retain control, she had created a permanent role for herself as show consultant. From that perch, she had continued the protocol.
The disparity with Susan Lucci's salary speaks volumes:
What the museum audience could not know was that my 17 years of work, all added up, came to $727,557, a sum paid out to Susan in six months. They also could not know that I’d been terminated three years earlier. By contrast, Susan would be kept on the payroll for the next quarter century.

Precisely because these records are public they are also unassailable and demonstrate how profoundly Agnes Nixon was prepared to renege on the implicit contract she had made back in 1968, not just with me, but with the press, the public and the history books.

As for the black presence in front of the camera, in all these years, the only black actress to ever duplicate the fabulous Star Trip of my early years on One Life is Victoria Rowell, the Drucilla Winters of The Young and the Restless.

Fortunately for Victoria, her mentor, William Bell, was The Real McCoy. He ruled his roost with an iron hand and made certain she was treated and paid as he saw her…i.e. as the dazzling talent that graced his show.

Meanwhile, I exist as The Poster Child for the importance of America’s social safety nets. Although Nixon’s white stars, as mega-millionaires, will eventually retire with lavish pensions, because she paid me in five figures and terminated me early, my AFTRA pension, the largest segment of my retirement income, only nets me $1424 a month. In spite of a lifetime of honorable work, without Social Security and Medicare, I would be indigent.
This is a fascinating account of a story that I personally perceived much differently before reading it.

While no one in charge will admit it, racism has definitely always played a role in daytime television, and entertainment in general. Why else would soap opera magazines put ALL MY CHILDREN's Greg and Jenny on their covers so much more than Angie and Jesse in the early 1980s? Why would the number of black daytime network chiefs, executive producers and head writers be so small that we could recall them all off the top of our head?

I will say, not as a counterpoint to the open letter but just as something we have witnessed over the years, a number of longtime white stars of soaps have been unceremoniously dumped after many years of service, or were diminished for years and then fired by a new hotshot producer. Anna Lee was supposedly given a lifetime contract by GENERAL HOSPITAL and then fired from the show in her 90s. She died months later with her son saying the firing snapped her will to live. Despicable.

Ms. Holly gives us the additional insight of contract negotiations and actual salary figures which sheds a whole new light on the situation never seen before. You can read the enitre fascinating and detailed open letter here.

We Love Soaps recently interview two other black actresses who offered their opinions on the state of diversity on daytime. DAYS OF OUR LIVES star Renee Jones agrees the trend is negative:

Honestly, I see it going backwards. When I first got into the business, I saw more blacks on TV. THE COSBY SHOW, DIFFERENT STROKES, THE JEFFERSONS, and all those shows. There were lots that showcased black actors, and not just being in a stereotypical role. I don't see that anymore.

It just seems to have dried up? I'm hopeful that we'll see more, but I don't know what to say other than, hire more! The talent is there, it's not like the talent isn't there. It's not in the world of the people creating these shows. They're not around enough black people to even think of them when they're casting the shows?

Petronia Paley was brought to THE DOCTORS 30 years ago for an interracial romance that didn't pan out:

I played Jessie Rollins, she was a black doctor and I (originally) was brought on to be the love interest of a white character. But they had another black/white romance on another soap that had not gone well. The woman playing the part, the black actor, had been fired, because people didn't like the story line, so that didn't work out.
So what do you think of this new information? Weigh in below in our Comments section.

- FLASHBACK: Ellen Holly's "Living a White Life -- for a While" 1969
- FLASHBACK: White Market For Black Actors 1979
- Black History Month: Blacks on White TV 1982


  1. Daytime's continued backsliding on so many relevant issues continues to stun me. It's not just racism that continues to take backward steps, but also sexism and especially the topical issues of rape and abuse. Hypocrisy continues to run rampant. Shows like Days of Our Lives deny their complacently while still openly courting viewerships that praise some of these stories as "ROMANCE!" At this point, my values and commitment towards ethical issues have rendered me Soapless. Maybe its Daytime's refusal to truly enter the 21st century that is its True DOOM.

  2. Damon/Roger:

    Thank you for covering Ms. Holly's letter. Sadly, things have not gotten better in daytime. We only have to look at the remaining shows to see that people of color don't really matter to daytime's network execs. Yes, there are people of color on daytime but can anyone think of a non-white super color? Lily & Cane are an interracial super couple but the character of Lily is written devoid of any African-American culture. Can anyone ever recall Lily being a black woman?

    Where is the 2011 Jesse & Angie? No where. B&B has a few people of color but they're never given front burner stories. Justin was married to Donna but their interracial marriage played out off screen and ended w/o any exploration of their love. B&B seems fascinated about having the rich, powerful Forresters rescue homeless brown people. But why are none of the non-white people in Los Angeles independently rich and successful? L.A. has rich Latinos, Asian-Americans, and African-Americans from different industries but they're never seen.

    Days of Our Lives hasn't given Renee Jones a decent storyline in a decade. Instead, she's been relegated to the stereotypical best-friend role.

    GH? What a wasteland it's been for years. Can anyone think of a decent storyline that had a non-white character in front burner position? People of color have been hired but they only exist to serve in supporting roles. Shawn may be different, but his story is just beginning.

    That leaves us with Y&R. What a mess. The last two years gave us the recycled story of the Winters brothers fighting over the same woman. Devon was stuck in a box. He had a girlfriend named Roxy who could easily be replaced with a card board cut-out. Devon's finally getting a storyline. Over all, Y&R is a mess.

    I will give OLTL credit for introducing the Patels. Rama & Vimal have been a joy to watch but they have been largely sexless.

  3. ICAM with you merkerson. I think you can substitute DAYS for any fill in the blank soap, e.g. Y&R. I was thinking that same thing while reading that open letter that maybe these are the types of decisions (along with 'wiping' and failure to properly market soaps in their heyday) that had the cumulative effect of driving these shows toward obsolescence, at least on Daytime Network TV.

    And as a former fan of Y&R, I hear you SoapFan78. The one time I can remember Lily being identified with being a Black woman was when she was portrayed by Davetta Sherwood.

    Tamara Tunie on As The World Turns had a storyline or 2 during the 80s and early 90s but Jessica's whole storyline with the ruined Marshall Travers character left a very bad taste and the Jessica character was never the same, IMO.

    Isn't it a sad state of affairs when 30 years after Debbie Morgan won the Daytime Emmy for Leading Actress, one of the few Black actresses who is even close to the position to win a Daytime Emmy is well...Debbie Morgan?

  4. Ms. Holly is very elegent & eloquent in both her book & her current on-line letter on how very little things have changed in this very naughty, extremely dirty, 2-faced profession called show business.

    Thanks for posting these notes, Roger & Damon!

    Brian :-)

  5. Agent,

    The Jessica & Marshall love affair was great. Then, of course, ATWT decided to flush away it's black cast. The wriers had Marshall rape Jessica and that was that. Marshall's portrayer was soon gone. Bonnie followed. And, that was that.

    As for Y&R's Lily, it's not about her accent, it's Lily's never mentioning her as a black woman, or referencing anything that African-Americans consider to be part of their culture.

    Contrast Lily to OLTL's Tea Delgado. Tea pronounces Spanish words correctly. She's allowed to have Puerto Rican favorite foods (plantains). OLTL's Rama can also reference parts of her culture. She can dress up in traditional clothing.

    Y&R does offer Sofia & Harmony. Sofia is OK. Unfortunately, the character suffered because of MAB's poor writing. Harmony is just being formed; therefore, it's hard to make a judgement call.

  6. I agree with everything that's been said here but I can't help feeling there's a bit of sour grapes in Holly's comments.

  7. drno:

    I think I might have some 'sour grapes' if I felt continually slighted and disrespected for 17 years...honestly, who wouldn't?

    As a an artist who is of Afro Caribbean ancestry, I have felt personally 'locked out' of opportunities that my colleagues have had access to. As a writer, I often get open mouthed stares and questions when I reveal my career & educational background, not to mention the content of my work does not appear to reflect what a Black writer/dramatist ought to be writing about. It is unnerving and aggravating but I try not to let it block and discourage my efforts. Ask me when I'm 60 or 70 years old, and I may have a different take/attitude.
    For me, at's like that age old scenario with the male colleagues on the golf links...if you're not invited, how do you gain access and learn the tools to advance yourself in your career, if you cannot get to those networks that are formed while playing a simple round of golf? I think for artists who had worked with the likes of Elia Kazan, Jack Lemmon and James Earl Jones and know their worth and the extent of their talent, like EH, it must've been a bitter pill to swallow to be heralded in one regard and then to be made to feel less than in the other.
    And then to feel that for all her efforts, progress really hasn't been made. Yeah, for me it would sting a little. It might actually sting more than a little,imo.

  8. Miss Holly created one of the most memorable characters in the history of daytime, and she deserves a respected place in history, just like Debbie Morgan and yes, Susan Lucci and Erika Slezak.

    I was there in the beginning with Carla and was there at the end when, suddenly and without warning or explanation, Carla and Sadie disappeared from the Llanview landscape. It was tragic.

    Where I disagree with Miss Holly is her characterization of Erika Slezak as part of the problem. The quote from Ms. Slezak that Miss Holly continually refers to is taken out of context. Ms. Slezak was COMPLAINING about the lack of diversity on "One Life to Live," not celebrating it. So to characterize Ms. Slezak as part of the problem seems unfair.

    Also, Agnes Nixon sold "One Life to Live" to ABC many years before the characters of Carla and Sadie were eliminated. Paul Rauch, the Demon of Daytime (who also allowed Jacquie Courtney, George Reinholt and Virginia Dwyer to be fired from "Another World!") was responsible for the reprehensible treatment that Miss Holly and Lillian Hayman (who played Sadie) endured, not Agnes Nixon.

    With all that said, Miss Holly was a huge asset to "One Life to Live," and her dismissal was a travesty. She was treated unfairly, and so was her legacy. She deserved better. So did her many fans.