Deep Soap: Former ‘One Life to Live’ Star Claims Racial Discrimination

Ellen Holly on "One Life to Live." (ABC)

The soap scandal du jour is decades old. Former “One Life To Live” star Ellen Holly has written a near book-length blog alleging that she experienced racial discrimination while she worked on the show. Holly, a Broadway star, was one of the show’s original cast members. Her character Carla was part of what seemed like the first interracial kiss in television history (sorry, Captain Kirk and Uharra). It was so controversial that several Southern ABC affiliates refused to air the episode. Ultimately it was revealed that Carla was African-American, and the kiss was not actually interracial. Holly was the first African-American daytime superstar. Holly details how groundbreaking this was at the time, sharing that she wrote a lengthy article for the New York Times about the experience.

Holly reveals that after the show’s creator Agnes Nixon stepped away from day to day involvement from OLTL to focus on her newer soap “All My Children,” her role was diminished. The edgy love triangle between Carla, a white man and an African-American man ended. In Holly’s point-of-view this was a sign 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.

Was that true? Or were the new writers and producers unfortunately less interested in continuing  Nixon’s vision of a diverse, socially relevant storylines because daytime as a whole  had opted to focus on youth oriented action-adventure storylines thanks to the popularity of “General Hospital’s” Luke and Laura. During that same era, then executive producer Paul Rauch, who eventually fired Holly, also phased out the working class white Wolek family. Of course, Carla could have continued to be front and center as Llanview went through its own campy phase featuring time travel and underground cities. Many fans have noted Rauch, who has worked as a producer on nearly every soap on the air, including a recent stint on “The Young and the Restless,” does not seem to give meaty storylines to minority characters.

Holly goes on to claim that Nixon conspired to pay her substantially less than other ABC stars by denying her the right to negotiate contracts, revealing she was initially offered the job over the phone by an executive at Nixon’s company who did not even identify himself. This same man sent her a contract to be paid at AFTRA scale, stipulating that she was not to hire an agent on her behalf. Incredibly, she continued to sign contracts that kept her at a low salary, without attempting to hire a lawyer or agent to get her a better deal while her costars became wealthy. She claims not to have had any idea that she was being paid far less than her co-stars until after she left the show. Shockingly, she says that she did not realize that she was not negotiating with an agent working on her behalf until decades later. Pinning this on Nixon, who was focused on writing the show, and, who Holly admits created the best role of her career, writing that, ““Carla” and [Carla’s mother] “Sadie Gray” allowed us to escape the two stereotypes that eternally shadowed our professional lives… Mammy and The Tragic Mulatto…the classic caricatures that lie in deadly wait for every black actress who is motherly and heavy set or skinny and pale,” strikes me as somewhat unfair. Yes, Nixon was sent copies of the contracts, but she did not negotiate them, and for all we know, assumed that since Holly signed them she had no problems with the terms. Actors generally only get substantial raises when they hire agents or lawyers to fight for them. The recent protracted contract negotiations for some of daytime’s biggest stars as well Prospect Park’s false claims that AMC’s Susan Lucci was demanding an outrageous salary to join the proposed on-line version of the soap attest that daytime television can be a nasty business.

Watch “One Life to Live:”

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Holly makes valid points about the second class status of minorities in daytime, and indeed the entertainment industry as a whole. The most tragic part of her story is that her acting career stalled after OLTL, despite her numerous Broadway credits. Perhaps she would have had as much success as another OLTL actress who left the show in the 1980s, Judith Light, if there were more opportunities for actors of color. Ironically, Carla’s initial storyline, which paralleled Holly’s own struggles to find acting work. would no longer make sense today.  Carla’s skin tone would not be an obstacle to her finding acting work. It would perhaps be an asset, given how many African American characters on television and film are played by actresses who are multi-racial or light complected. It would be interesting to learn whether Debbi Morgan and Darnell Williams were paid comparably to Kim Delaney and Lawrence Lau when they were the hottest young couples on “All My Children” during the 1980s. She also makes a different, perhaps unintended point: that actors, writers and directors will get screwed over by producers and networks if they do not obtain competent business representation.

Celebrate Christmas With the Mannings

The current regime at “One Life To Live” had nothing to do with anything that happened to Ellen Holly, so don’t let her story stop you from savoring every second of what is tragically the final weeks of the show. Friday’s episode featured heartwarming scenes of the Mannnings decorating their Christmas tree — just a typical family, where the father is balckmailing his son into spending time with him while letting the mom think that her current boyfriend is guilty of a murder that dad committed — or at least thinks he committed.

Then, in the show’s meta storyline about the cancellation of soap within the soap Fraternity Row, Roxie crashed the Blanca Morales show to force movie star David to join the Frat Row, believing that his star wattage would save it. The one sheet for David’s new film “The Boy With The Chipmunk Tattoo” was funny enough to make the whole bit worthwhile. It seems that in Llanview, James Franco actually improved the ratings of “General Hospital” er “Southwest General.”  Unfortunately, when Roxie got to the set, which was the actual OLTL set, she discovered that the show had already wrapped and passed out in shock — and fantasized that she was the star of the show. Her fantasy will continue throughout Monday’s episode. This one is going to make fans both laugh and cry.


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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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