Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Ellen Holly, ONE LIFE TO LIVE, Racism & The Soap Opera, Part 2: "India has its Untouchables, America had its Uncastables"

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."

She continues:

"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.  


  1. Sadly, I have to concur with Ms. Holly's sentiments as far as Casting for Black actresses in that time frame of the 1960s. It, along with the Black listing of a decade earlier (the 1950s) is a horrible period for screen, tv and stage actors and writers.
    The recently deceased stage actress Jane White was the daughter of the one time NAACP president Walter Francis White, who served from 1931 - 1955.
    Jane White went on to play the villainess Nurse Lydia Halliday on 'The Edge of Night,' circa 1968. A memorable quote of Ms. White was featured in he robituary last Summer: "She was too white for Black parts, and too Black for White parts."

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Unfortunately, what Ms. Holly & the late Ms. White experienced in the wonderfully brilliant, gloriously unjust & skin-toned discriminatory 1950s & 1960s serious dramatic actor casting world still goes on today in 21st century American show business. If a black actor is too light in skin tone or he carries himself like someone who knows how to read & write the Queen's English, he is totally uncastable for film & TV. God Bless You, Ms. Holly!

    Brian :-)

  4. Again, I am very grateful for this wonderfully insightful and thorough interview. You all @ We Love Soaps continue to publish really informative as well as entertaining articles from the artists of daytime television. Keep up the great work!

    Grover and Greenb, I just found out who Jane White was last summer after reading her obituary. She, like Ms. Holly was terrifically talented from what I read. I wonder if there are any clips of Ms. White on You Tube? I just recently saw a few great scenes of Ms. Holly from OLTL. Unfortunately I wasn't born yet to see that pivotal 1st scene of Ms. Holly's 1st appearance on the OLTL but the first interview gave a clear description of that introduction.

    I hope that Viola Davis, Marianne Jean Baptiste and some of today's talented actresses of every hue will get other chances to shine but it has been somewhat discouraging.

    Food for thought. Thanks again We Love Soaps!

  5. i am happy that the soaps went off the air. i spent way too much time on them. they were nonsense! i started watching "all my children because it had two black actors, jessy and (i can't remember her name) she has dimples in her face. i realized early on that the black people were are sterotyped in all of the soaps. on every single channel. the black people were thugs, poor, had to be saved by some white person. they were mascots on the soaps. i got sick of it. i did not care about the storyline. i watched for the hairstyles, the clothing, the jewelry. then i just let weeks pass and i still would only wait to see the climax and then laugh at the bad acting. so, maybe you can star in a black soap opera.

  6. I always admired Ellen Holly. She was the first to be open about being a light-skinned black actress. She was truthful about the troubles of being light-skinned, everyone thinks light-skinned blacks have it better when in fact many of them suffer because they can neither fit into the black nor white world. If you are the complexion of a Halle Berry, you're good, but if your lighter than that, that's when you'll face struggles. There are still many light-skinned black actresses and actors who suffer in Hollywood and sometimes have to pass. Hollywood needs to be more accepting of light-skinned blacks and biracial people. There's still color prejudice in Hollywood. People shouldn't have to pass in order to be successful, people should be accepted as they are. Great black actresses like Ellen Holly and Lonette McKee are over-looked and not as much appreciated by blacks and whites because of their complexion and that's not fair!

  7. Sad thing is, One Life To Live, still practices discrimnation against the black actresses on the show, when it was on ABC. Evangeline's character was never picked up again after the actress playing her left, and she fell intoa mysterious coma which she was never broguht out of, right before she could marry Todd.

    Then her sister Layla runs off with another man on some island right before she marries 'Christian'. Funny, that none of the beautiful black actresses got to marry their handsome non-black finces, but all the white women had glorified angelic weddings. It would have been nice to see Todd marry Evangeline. Why give them such a beautiful love story only to yank it away forever and focus on the boring couples!

    I hate OLTL! Am so glad it's not on anymore.

    Vampire Diaries does the same kind of unfair bullshit! They glorify all the same color couples, but 'kill' Bonnie and make it where she and Jeremy can't even 'feel' each other, so the love story with them has fizzled for no good reason. That sucks and I refuse to watch it ever again(no matter how much I love Ian Somerhalder).

    I guess I have to rely on 'Twisted' for an interesting and beautifl love story between Danny and Lacey. Let's just hope it doesn't get axed or that Danny ends up with Jo. If he chooses Jo over Lacey, I will tune out of that show for sure. some of actually DO LOVE interracial romances on and OFF camera.

  8. Sorry for all the misspellings.