Ellen Holly was the first African American on a daytime soap opera. It was no crystal stair.
And according to those who followed her, not much has changed.
By Denise Clay
According to a study done by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 38 percent of the audience of daytime soap operas is made up of African American women who identify themselves as evangelical Christians.
But while soap operas have a large Black audience, they weren’t always represented on the screen.
So when Agnes Nixon began creating her new soap opera One Life To Live, in 1968, she decided to shake things up a little by allowing Black actors to play, well, Black people.
Among those called in to read for the role of Carla Gray, a character who was going to have one of the central storylines of OLTL, was Ellen Holly. Holly was looking at making a career change after a successful career in the theater.
The reason: as a light-skinned black woman taking the next logical step, film and television work, was proving difficult.
“I had a 16-year career in the theater and had played all kinds of roles,” Holly said. “There were few white actresses that had had my career. But when it came to films, there were tremendous problems casting me because I photographed white. Whenever a role came up in which a black person was passing for white, like in the movie Imitation of Life, that role went to a white actress.”
So when she got the call to read for Carla, Holly was kind of surprised.
“I was leaving the theater and was planning to go to graduate school,” she said. “I got a call and was asked to audition for a soap opera. I almost didn’t go.”
But while she eventually got the part, she almost declined it due to the pay, which was scale… the lowest amount of money a unionized actor can make on a television program.
“I felt like I was doomed before I began,” Holly said. “They said that the contract was non-negotiable and if I brought in an agent, it would be seen as an act of aggression. What that meant was, take it or leave it.”
For the first two years of the show, the story of Carla Gray was a hot property. She and Lillian Hayward who portrayed Carla’s mother, Sadie Gray, were given the kind of star treatment befitting a central character on a show that was being watched by millions who wondered how daytime would treat its first really prominent Black characters.
In fact, the show had become so popular among Blacks, that major Black entertainers like Sammy Davis Jr. and Hazel Scott asked to be a part of it.
But two years later, Holly got the answer to the question of how the show would treat its prominent Blacks: like an afterthought.
“We got unheard of coverage in the New York press,” she said. “I was the face that launched the show. But once the shows were safe, we were pulled back because our storyline became a little too successful. They dismantled my and Lillian’s storyline and moved us to the kitchen table.”
That is the case still today, says Richard Williams, a longtime soap opera fan who has done research on the topic of Daytime and Diversity. Even today, when Blacks dominate the viewing audience for daytime dramas, few of these dramas have consistent storylines that feature them, he said.
“It’s almost as if [daytime drama creators] are afraid they’ll get too big,” Williams said. “But the dismantling is gradual. It’s not something that happens right away. But if a storyline for a Black character gets too hot, you’ll see it happen.”
And it’s in daytime’s best interest to make it gradual. If it happened any other way, show producers would risk alienating a core part of its audience. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, Blacks make up roughly 38 percent of the daytime soap viewing audience.
Holly continued to work on OLTL after Nixon sold the show to ABC in 1973. While she remained as a story consultant, the producers of the show had most of the control, Holly said.
Initially, she was working with a producer that she got along with. This person allowed her to write a storyline of her own and when this person was being forced out, Holly wrote a letter supporting them to the OLTL management.
Unfortunately, that management included the new producer, a person with whom Holly didn’t get along.
“This new producer was upset that I didn’t congratulate them on being hired and made it clear to me that I had made an enemy,” Holly said. “He hired an actor that I asked him not to because I knew him from the theater and knew that it wouldn’t work. I had been treated so badly by this producer that I went to the Vice President of Broadcasting for ABC, but she didn’t do anything about it.”
So Holly left the show in 1981. Two years later, she returned to the role she had originated with a new producer, one who respected her, at the helm.
But the 15th Anniversary of OLTL was the kiss of death for her career on the show, Holly said. The idea of having two Black women in she and Hayward standing as the two longest tenured characters on the show didn’t go over well with some people, Holly said.
Plus, the show got yet another new producer.
“This person made the producer that I had when I left look like a prince,” she said. “He used to publicly embarrass me. I obeyed his orders and cut my hair. I was hammered over my voice. He said that my voice was an offense to the public and should be taken off of the air.”
Eventually, that’s what happened. The producer brought Holly into his office one morning and told her that her contract wouldn’t be renewed because “you’re not worth it.” Hayward was also let go the same day.
“A few days later, I got flowers from the rank and file at the studio, the people I worked with every day,” Holly said. “But I got nothing from management. This was beyond disrespect for me. It also showed disrespect for the audience, the Black audience.”
And to make matters worse, the disrespect showed itself most in her financial compensation. During the 40 years she was on One Life To Live, she made what featured white players made in seven months, Holly said.
Part of the reason why Holly decided to go public with her story, a story she also tells on her website blackstarimploding.com and in her book ONE LIFE: The Autobiography of an African American Actress was in hopes of helping future African American actresses avoid her fate, she said.
But according to one of the women who came after her, former The Young and The Restless star Victoria Rowell, that’s probably not going to happen.
Rowell, who portrayed Drucilla Winters on Y&R for 17 years, has been vocally advocating for more diversity in daytime. She even proposed bringing Holly in to portray her mother on the show, she said.
However the focus of much of her diversity effort these days has been in what goes on behind the scenes. Rowell has been advocating for more writers and directors of color on daytime television. Y&R currently has one black writer, Susan Dansby, and a black director.
But to get them, Rowell had to bring in a very big gun.
“Very little has changed,” she said. “In 2011, the president of the National Urban League, Marc Morial, came to the leadership of The Young and The Restless and presented them with the fact that after 38 years, we have only one Black writer and one Black director on a show that has a predominately Black audience.”
As a very vocal proponent of diversity on the show, Rowell often found herself on an island when it came to these issues, she said. While others on the Y&R cast agreed that there was a need for diversity, they were afraid to speak out for fear of losing their jobs, she said.
And for her troubles, Rowell was eventually forced out. And despite a groundswell effort on the part of her fans to get her back on set, there seems to be no movement in that direction.
“When you keep talking about these disparities, you’re not going to get re-employed,” Rowell said. “A white actor of my caliber would have already been brought back.”
As was stated earlier, Blacks have been a large part of the daytime viewing audience since its inception.
But while Rowell has involved the National Urban League and Cong. Sheila Jackson Lee in her cause of diversifying daytime, you shouldn’t expect a massive boycott…
Because, you see, no one watches soap operas…
“No one admits to watching them, especially Black men,” Williams said. “You won’t get the kind of groundswell that you need for a boycott because no one will admit it. There’s still a stigma attached to watching soap operas.”