Thursday, February 2, 2012

Ellen Holly, ONE LIFE TO LIVE, Racism & The Soap Opera, Part 1: Agnes Nixon & Bringing The Black Audience To ABC

Ellen Holly, daytime's groundbreaking first black leading lady, and Agnes Nixon, perhaps the greatest figure in the history of daytime television, have had a fascinating relationship. WE LOVE SOAPS TV recently spent an afternoon with the legendary Ms. Holly, who played Carla on Nixon's ONE LIFE TO LIVE starting in 1968 and leaving for good in 1985. We asked Ms. Holly to share her story with us.

In the first part of our special Black History Month series focusing on the life and times of Ellen Holly, we take a close look at the early, genial days of Nixon and Holly's occasionally rocky partnership. Join us as Ellen Holly herself takes us back to the late '60s, when cultural revolution, TV innovation, and two brilliant women came together to launch and popularize the one and only ONE LIFE TO LIVE. . .

"In 1968, a very smart lady, named Agnes Nixon, figured out how she could take her little, brand new, half-hour soap and shoot it right into the national limelight!"

Ellen Holly is gesticulating grandly--and almost glowing in the afternoon sun that's streaming into her cheery, whimsical living room--as she begins her story.

"Three years earlier, the 1965 Civil Rights Act had passed, and now Agnes figured out a way, in 1968, to shoot through all of the tumultuous events of the times and garner total national attention by saying, 'I have just created the first black star in a central role in the history of daytime television.'

"It was fascinating from the beginning, because the story line was absolutely mesmerizing.  There was a black woman who was the head of housekeeping at Llanview hospital, and she was named Sadie Gray.  She would talk from time to time about her daughter, Clara, who was assumed to be dead.

"Well, two or three months later, this exotic somebody called Carla Benari came to town in the midst of a nervous breakdown.  She went to a doctor, and he put her in the hospital to be sure there wasn't something physically wrong with her.  She ended up falling in love with Peter De Anda's character, the black intern." Holly laughs, then continues. "I began getting some very interesting fan mail.  Because audiences had been living with Carla for months under the assumption that she was a white character. . .

"Eventually, in what I think is probably, to this day (Agnes is such a brilliant writer!) the best use of a serial, Agnes had Sadie, the head of housekeeping, and Carla Benari--me--end up together in an apartment doorway.  They each had totally different reasons for being there, and Lillian Hayman, who played Sadie, looked at me and said, 'Clara!'  And I looked at her and said, 'Mama!' and the audience realized that Carla Benari was not a white woman--she was Sadie's black daughter.  I mean, the brilliance!"

Holly waves her arms, triumphantly, and continues.

"What Agnes Nixion understood about the material, about how to use a series, to really squeeze it for all that it's worth, is this:  If you're watching a play, a film or an opera, where you're with the characters for only a two-hour period of time, you can only make so much investment in a certain character.

"On the other hand, if you are living with a character day after day, week after week, month after month, you make much more of an emotional investment in who that character is.  If you present a character, and people live with that character for months, with certain assumptions--and then you pull the rug out from under them--because of the great amount of time spent, and investment with that character, the shock of it is so much more than it could possibly be in any other medium."

Just as they do today, the soaps of the 1960s used to schedule the big revelations strategically, airing them the last five minutes of the last show of the week.  The audience reaction to Carla's race revelation on that Friday started out huge, but it also had time to grow and spread until Monday.

"It was so powerful," she continues, "that over the weekend, everybody started talking about it.  Not just the audience.  Once it was revealed that I was black, a lot of white women wrote me, saying, 'what a cop out!' They were waiting for an inter-racial relationship; one in which the woman was white, and the man was black! So that's why they were angry that I was black," she laughs.

"Then, there was a guy in Texas who had been angry, when he thought I was white, because I had kissed Peter.  But after he found out I was black, then he was mad that I had also been engaged to a white doctor.  This was everywhere!

"That's one of the reasons I found the role so exciting to take on," Holly confides.  "I realized that a lot of people are prejudiced who don't know that they are.  They really don't know it, and when they felt one way about me on Friday, and did a whole 180 on me on Monday, it was demonstrated to them that it had nothing to do with anything tangible.  It was a very illuminating moment."

Indeed.  Suddenly, ONE LIFE TO LIVE's story line was national news, the subject of features in all sorts of print media (such as "Newsweek", "TV Guide", and "Ebony"), and  Ellen Holly was becoming a household name.  Agnes Nixon's baby, her fledgling, innovative new soap opera, was about to achieve hitherto unheard of  success.  Together, the two talented, groundbreaking women seemed destined for a beautiful friendship.  Or at least, a lucrative partnership.

"What did Agnes get out of it?" Holly asks, rhetorically.  "She got her name written indelibly in the history books.  She got saturation press coverage.  She got all the whites mesmerized by this story line, and at the same time she picked up a black audience that was extraordinary."

According to Holly, at that time, about 12% of the population was black.  However, the ONE LIFE TO LIVE audience was roughly a quarter black.  With few opportunities to view compelling television with black leads, this audience became legendary for the ingenious ways it managed to make time for each daily episode.  After all, in the days before spoilers or rebroadcasts, let alone recording devices, they only had one shot to see what happened next.

"There were professional women:  doctors and dentists who scheduled their patients around us," Holly recalls.   "There were school kids in college who scheduled their classes around us.  Just last year at Sag Harbor I met a girl who had gone to Vassar at that time, and she had scheduled all her classes around ONE LIFE TO LIVE.  Hospital workers in a given hospital would all get together, brown-bagging their lunches, and find a TV so they could all watch together as a group.  Black maids would set up their ironing boards in front of the television and do all their ironing.

"We even had guys," she grins, a bit mischievously.  "I remember one guy who stopped his Wonder Bread truck (not on the side, but smack in the middle of the street) and vacated it, chasing me down the street for half a block to get my autograph!"

Together, Nixon's writing and Holly's acting helped ONE LIFE TO LIVE secure legions of fans of all colors, and in the process, they helped to open up some largely untapped markets for daytime soaps.  Accordingly, the shows ratings "went through the roof," as Holly puts it.

Today, when a show runner has a big, unique hit, she might be asked to make another one just like it.  Forty years ago, things worked the same way. Since many agreed that Nixon had worked a miracle with her ratings, she was rewarded with a another soap: ALL MY CHILDREN.

Holly continued working for Agnes on ONE LIFE TO LIVE and even wrote for the show on occasion, uncredited, but as we'll see in part two of this series, Holly is certain that after her light-skinned black character had "done it's job" (and launched the show into the stratosphere with it's innovation and originality) she began to wear out her welcome. It seems that once the novelty of having a black female lead wore off, it became more and more difficult for some people to treat the black star the same way they would treat her white peers.


  1. Ellen Holly: What a wonderful woman and actress!


    Thank you for your continued celebration of people of color in the soap world.

  2. i love this site just for this reason alone. you guys are such a positive voice in the world of soaps! and the way you incorporate every aspect of it, from white to black, men to women, straight to gay, tv to web is just awesome! keep up the good work. i will definitely be checking in to see how you continue with, not only, this particular story, but how you continue throughout black history month...i'm pretty sure no other soap site is doing this. again, kudos!

  3. I have read some of Holly's personal story on a link to her website through another blog but this interview is a great complement to that other reading as this interview describes in great detail that BIG REVEAL scene between Sadie & Clara/Carla: boy, I wish I could've scene those episodes!
    I applaud We Love Soaps for recognizing Black History Month with such an insightful interview conducted with such thoughtfulness.

  4. This is such a wonderful learning experience for all of us soap fans. Miss Holly, you could be a fantastic director & teacher!

    Brian :-)

  5. To be honest,most of us members of the African American audience guessed Carla's race from the very beginning. We'd all seen what were then the two staple films on the subject of passing for white: Pinky and Imitation of Life, and while she light skinned, most of us have extended family members that could pass.