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A life member of The Actors Studio, Holly began her career on stage appearing in the Broadway productions of Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright and A Hand Is on the Gate before embarking on a television and film career. She guest starred on Sam Benedict and The Nurses before landing the role of actress-turned-Judge Carla Gray on the ABC soap opera One Life to Live, a role she played from 1968 to 1980, and again from 1983 to 1985. Holly came to the attention of Agnes Nixon, the creator of One Life to Live, after writing a letter to the editor of The New York Times about what it was like to be a light-skinned African American. Nixon created the role of Carla and offered Holly a role on her new show.
When Holly began on One Life to Live in October 1968, her African-American heritage was not publicized as part of the storyline; her character, named Carla Benari, was a touring actress of apparently Italian American heritage. Carla and a white physician, Dr. Jim Craig, fell in love and became engaged. But she was falling for an African-American doctor. When the two kissed onscreen, it was reported that the switchboards at ABC were busy by fans who thought that the show had shown an African-American and white person kissing. The fact that Carla was actually the African-American "Clara Grey" posing as white was revealed when Sadie Grey, played by Lillian Hayman, was identified as her mother. Sadie would eventually convince her daughter to embrace her heritage and tell the truth.
Holly left the series in 1981, but returned in 1983. According to her autobiography, One Life: The Autobiography of an African American Actress, she was fired from the show by new executive producer Paul Rauch in 1985. Holly returned to daytime in the long-term recurring role of a judge on Guiding Light from 1989-1993. She made a return to the small screen in 2002, when she appeared as "Selena Frey" in the made-for-cable film 10,000 Black Men Named George, alongside Andre Braugher and Mario Van Peebles.
Holly is a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority. Offscreen, Holly had a relationship with costar Roger Hill, known for his role as Cyrus in the cult film The Warriors and Alex Lowndes in One Life to Live.
|1959||Take a Giant Step||Carol, the Girl in the Bar|
|1973||Cops and Robbers||Ms. Wells|
|1988||School Daze||Odrie McPherson|
|1963||The Defenders||Janet Lamb||1 episode|
|Sam Benedict||Elissa Reagan||1 episode|
|1963–1964||The Nurses||Helena Fuentes
|1964||Dr. Kildare||Lucille Mann||1 episode|
|1968–1986||One Life to Live||Assistant District Attorney Clara "Carla" Grey Hall Scott (aka Carla Bonari)||10/7/1968-12/1980; 04/1983-12/1985|
|1974||King Lear||Regan||Television movie|
|1978||Sergeant Matlovich vs. the U.S. Air Force||Amy||Television movie|
|1985||ABC Afterschool Special||Mrs. Robbins||1 episode|
|1986||Spenser: For Hire||Amanda Layton||1 episode|
|1989–1990||In the Heat of the Night||Ruth Peterson||4 episodes|
|1989–1993||Guiding Light||Judge Collier||Unknown episodes|
|2002||10,000 Black Men Named George||Selena Frey||Television movie|
- Garfield, David (1980). "Appendix: Life Members of The Actors Studio as of January 1980". A Player's Place: The Story of The Actors Studio. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc. p. 278. ISBN 0-02-542650-8.
- Ellen Holly Biography - FilmReference.com
- Schemering, Christopher. The Soap Opera Encyclopedia, September 1985, pg. 158-166, ISBN 0-345-32459-5 (1st edition)
- Roses and Revolutions : Waxidermy Archived 2009-01-06 at the Wayback Machine