MGM-Mixed Celebrity: 'Ellen Holly'
ELLEN HOLLY'S "ONE LIFE"
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[The book] One Life: The Autobiography
of an African-American Actress relates
the life of the wonderful Ellen Holly (a.k.a.
'One Life to Live's' own 'Carla' Gray Hall Scott).
Holly's book tells us more than
the bare bones of her life.
She shares with us the loves of her
life (most notably Harry Belafonte),
and her experiences working with
some of today's most celebrated actors,
including Cicely Tyson, Jack Lemmon,
and James Earl Jones, and with her
daytime co-stars Erika Slezak,
Lillian Hayman, and Robin Strasser.
[The daytime television serial, in which she
played her most well-known role, 'One Life
to Live' (OLTL)] figures into only a
relatively small portion of the book.
Above all else, One Life is an exciting testimony
of what it means to be "black" [identified]
now and what it meant thirty years ago.
Holly starred in twenty-three plays and
had two film roles, along with numerous
She is also known to daytime audiences
from her five-year stint as Judge
Frances Collier on 'Guiding Light'.
But her most famous role is her seventeen-year
run as 'Carla', a role that has earned her not
only a prominent place in 'One Life to Live'
history, but in television history as well
Cleverly, the story of 'Carla' began
with the audience encouraged to
assume that she was 'White'.
She worked in Llanview Hospital on one side
of town, going by the name of 'Carla' Benari.
On the other side of town we got
to know Sadie, whose daughter
'Clara' had died nine years earlier.
The stories of these two women did not
appear to have any bearing on each other,
but following what Holly describes as Nixon's
"brilliant exploitation of the soap opera
genre's full potential" the two women,
after seven months of careful plotting
and build-up, faced each other at the
end of an episode in a deserted hallway,
with this exchange after a stunned pause:
The story of 'Carla' Gray turned out to be
one of a young "black" woman passing for
white, in order to enjoy the benefits and
opportunities of the white world.
The social relevance of the story sent shock
waves through the world of daytime, lit up
the ABC switchboards, and inspired at least
one affiliate to refuse to air the show.
According to Holly, it also attracted black viewers
by the score, secured unusually high ratings
for a new soap opera, and helped to balance
the stigma that soaps were frivilous fluff.
And it made Ellen Holly a star of the genre.
She was asked to write an article in 'The New
York Times' about her work on the show, the
most serious treatment that the genre of soaps
had yet received in the esteemed paper.
She was sought after by magazines such as
'Ebony', which ran a glamorous photo spread
to mark the occassion of Carla's wedding
when that storyline aired.
Holly couldn't wait to get to the soundstage
every day, and marveled at the peculiarities and
challenges of the new medium of soap operas.
But what started as a job that she loved
and was praised for became wrenching.
Although she made many friends in the other actors
and actresses on the show, it would seem that most
of her memories of her time in Llanview are painful
She sings the praises of Robin Strasser ("more
snap and style than almost anyone in daytime"),
Al Freeman Jr., Lillian Hayman ("she became my
second mother"), and Gillian Spencer, among others,
but she calls Erika Slezak "a rookie performer...
without a single significant credit to [her] name."
Besides being unimpressed with Slezak's
credits, Holly cites an interview that
Slezak gave to Soap Opera Digest circa
July of 1988 that deeply offended her.
"We don't have poor people in Llanview,"
said Slezak in order to promote OLTL.
"We don't have any more
black people in Llanview.
We have no ethnic people.
No, this is now a story about
rich people and richer people.
We're all `haves' now."
Ms. Holly took this statement as a slap in the face.
She felt that this statement minimized her own place
in establishing the reality and quality that has
come to be expected of 'One Life to Live'.
Holly offers a fascinating glimpse into the hierachy of soap
business politics, and into the frustrations of acting amid a
corrosive work atmosphere, when she recounts her years
on the show opposite an actor she pseudonyms as "Martin".
Paired on-screen as lovers, but contemptuous of each
other off camera, Holly vividly writes about their
battles with each other, both personal and professional.
The book also paints an interesting portrait of OLTL's
creator, Agnes Nixon, that is mostly flattering in regards
to her creative gifts and her personal character.
Ms. Holly has much to say about producer Paul Rauch
(currently of 'Guiding Light') but none of it is good.
According to Holly, Rauch took pleasure in humiliating
her in front of the other actors, and in finally firing her
from the show after seventeen years at 'OLTL' during
an early morning impromptu meeting, informing her:
"When your contract's up I'm dropping you!
You're just not worth it to me!"
Closely following these events and Holly's termination
at OLTL, her on-screen mother, actress Lillian Hayman,
was fired by "a minor functionary" on the show,
who stopped her in the parking garage to blurt out:
"Paul Rauch wants you to know that you've
just worked your last day on the show!"
Thus, the only remaining original cast member on the show was
dismissed, without being given notice, an interview with the
producer, or the dignity to clean out her dressing room!
These and other even more surprising revelations fill this book.
I was outraged by what I read, and would forgive Ellen Holly a
whole of bitterness from reading some of the injustices she endured.
But One Life is ultimately not about bitterness or indictments of racism.
One Life isn't even about OLTL.
It is about Holly's life, and her personal journey toward
reconciling her life, her identity, and her career.
So, without meeting her, without ever having read
her play, without ever having seen her act or speak,
I feel that I have known Ellen Holly intimately from this book.
I have known and felt her hopes, her dreams,
and her pain, and I love her for them.
One Life is a must-read not only for 'One Life to Live' fans,
but for anyone who appreciates an autobiography where
strength and courage win out over indignation and self-doubt...
One Life: The Autobiography of
an African-American Actress is
published by Kodansha America