Ellen Holly as Carla Gray
|One Life to Live character|
|Portrayed by||Ellen Holly|
|First appearance||October 7, 1968|
|Last appearance||December 1985|
|Created by||Agnes Nixon|
Clara "Carla" Gray (formerly Benari, Hall and Scott) is a fictional character on the American soap opera One Life to Live. The role was portrayed by Ellen Holly, who was contracted with the serial by creator Agnes Nixon in September 1968, and debuted in the episode first-run October 7, 1968; Holly appeared in the lead role through December 1980. Holly reprised the role in April 1983, reappearing in May of that year; she taped episodes through September 1985, and last appeared onscreen in December 1985.
Carla was one of the original characters created for the show and was featured in a ground-breaking and very controversial storyline about race relations. Carla was a lighter-skinned black American passing as a white woman (specifically an Italian American). The fact that Holly's Carla was actually black was not revealed to the show's audience until about six months after the character debuted. The revelation was a major shock to viewers, and the series was boycotted by several Southern affiliates. Nevertheless, the controversy attracted much attention and ratings shot up for the then-fledgling soap.
African American Sadie Gray (Lillian Hayman) lived in an apartment next door to the Wolek family and worked as the manager of housekeeping for Llanview Hospital. Sadie acted mainly as a confidante for troubled heroine Anna Wolek (Doris Belack), but made several passing references to a daughter that she vaguely said was 'lost to her.' Anna and the rest of the Woleks assumed that Sadie's daughter Clara was dead.
A few months into the series' run, Dr. Jim Craig (Robert Milli) began treating a young woman named "Carla Benari," whose illness seemed to be psychosomatic — her physical symptoms stemmed from some unstated mental conflict. Carla, who was assumed to be Italian American, began working as Jim's receptionist. Very quickly, Carla began dating an African American intern named Dr. Price Trainor (Peter DeAnda). ABC received several angry letters decrying the portrayal of a black man dating a white woman.
Carla soon struck up a friendship with Anna herself. On a visit to the Wolek apartment, Carla ran into Sadie. It was then abruptly revealed that "Carla Benari" was in fact Clara Gray, who had not died but run away from home at an early age. Sadie was furious to learn that her daughter was pretending to be white, and Carla herself was mortified — but not enough to end her ruse there and then. Although heartbroken, Sadie did not reveal her daughter's secret.
While Carla and Sadie tried to work out their issues, Carla became embroiled in a love triangle. Her employer Jim Craig also fell in love with her, and she reciprocated his feelings. Carla divulged her secret to Jim, who not only was fine with it, but he asked her to marry him. She briefly accepted the proposal, but eventually returned his ring, after realizing she would only be marrying him in order to keep perpetuating a lie. After breaking up with Jim, Carla came clean to everyone in Llanview about her true heritage, including Price. Unfortunately Price was not in the least sympathetic to Carla's predicament. If anything, he was even angrier than Sadie at Carla's ruse. The revelation ruined their relationship once and for all. Price left town soon afterwards. Carla was able to mend fences with her mother though.
In 1970, Carla found herself in another love triangle - this time being courted by high-flying politico Bert Skelly (Herb Davis), and police lieutenant Ed Hall (Al Freeman, Jr.). Bert was a slick career politician who seemed to promise the good life that Carla desired. Ed was a blue-collar, "salt of the earth" workingman who initially considered Carla to be a stuck-up princess. In time though, Ed proved to be the love of Carla's life and the two became engaged in 1973. However, the road to the altar was not an easy one. Ed blamed himself for the death of his good friend Meredith Lord Wolek (Lynn Benesch), who was killed during a hostage crisis at the Lord family estate, Llanfair at the same time Carla found her life on the line. This forced them to postpone the wedding as Carla was first nearly killed when her brakes failed and again when she was lured to the jeweler's by a mysterious man posing as a policeman. Carla went to meet with the man, who pointed a gun at her and tried to kill her until Joe Riley came to her rescue. The man after Carla was revealed to be Lester Brock, the brother of Earl Brock, who blamed Ed for the murder of his brother. Ed and Carla alas made it to the altar in October and surrounded by friends and family, they were married. Carla and Ed had also made proceedings to adopt Josh West (Laurence Fishburne), a little street urchin that Ed had taken in while romancing Carla. Josh soon took the surname Hall and became a son to Ed and Carla.
By the mid-1970s, airtime for Carla, Ed, and Josh progressively diminished. Toward the end of the decade, Carla did get the spotlight in one more love triangle: she divorced Ed to marry Dr. Jack Scott (Arthur Burghardt), a surgeon who operated on Ed to fix his heart condition. Jack, however, was always planned to be a short term character, and was finally killed off in 1980. The same year Carla left Llanview. She returned in 1983 and, after having attended law school in her absence, Carla became an Assistant District Attorney. In this new position, she later had to prosecute Ed on manslaughter charges for a police drug bust gone wrong. Also during this time she was also involved with another love triangle. Carla still had feelings for Ed, but she fell in love and nearly married a football star-turned night club owner Alec Lowndes (Roger Hill). It took time for Carla to get over that situation. Then after Alec was out of the picture, she eventually came back to Ed.
In September 1985, Carla accepted a job in Arizona similar to what she was doing in Llanview. She left with her mother Sadie and moved to Arizona. Soon after Ed and their son Josh, left town and moved to Arizona to be with them. Sadie died off-screen in the 1990s - but Carla, Ed and Josh came back to Llanview after Ed and Carla's grandson (and Josh's son), Jared Hall (Herve Clermont) came to town and fell in love with Rachel Gannon in 2000.
Impact and reception
Before Carla Gray, there had been no lead African American heroes (or heroines) on any daytime soap opera. Prior to creating One Life to Live, Agnes Nixon had worked as head writer on the NBC soap Another World and already attempted to integrate African-American characters and actors into that show, but with limited success. A CBS soap Love Is a Many Splendored Thing featured an Asian American as a leading heroine, but character was written out only six months on the air. Carla became the first non-white lead to be featured in a front-burning, sustained storyline for several years on a soap opera.
Nixon has said she was inspired to create the Carla Gray character after seeing singer Eartha Kitt in a television interview. Kitt expressed her own frustration at facing prejudice from both Caucasian and Black audiences because of her light complexion, and the feeling of not belonging to either group. (Even Carla's surname "Gray" reflects the in-between nature of the character - not "black" or "white"). According to actress Ellen Holly's own memoirs (One Life: An Autobiography of an African American Actress), Nixon based Carla's mother Sadie on a maid who worked for Nixon's family when she was growing up (much the same way that Sadie on One Life initially worked as a maid for the Lord family).
Unfortunately, Holly depicts a backstage story that diverges far from the ideal storyline shown on air. She claims that despite the Carla Gray storyline being a major reason for the series' early success, she faced racist attitudes behind the camera. In her book, Holly is vocal about her frustration at her character being pushed into the background to make way for white American characters, and about being summarily dismissed in the mid-1980s by then-executive producer and writing consultant Paul Rauch, who fired all African-American lead and supporting actors from the show during his tenure (namely, Holly, OLTL original actress Lillian Hayman, and Al Freeman, Jr. by 1988).
Wedding of Ed and Carla Hall
Ed Hall and Carla Gray were initially supposed to marry in the summer of 1973. However, several news breaks chronicling the Watergate scandal were preempting daytime television. This forced OLTL to push the wedding into the fall. In its place the story of Lester Brock attempted to kill Carla on numerous occasions would test Carla and Ed's commitment to each other for a final time before they were to marry.
Famous pianist and jazz singer Hazel Scott made a deal with the show's head-writers to make an appearance on OLTL as well. She would play a famous relative of Carla's who would sing a song to the newlyweds. Hazel Scott wrote the song herself and appeared in the October 3 and 4 episodes of 1973, in which Carla and Ed married. The wedding was also the first on-screen soap opera wedding of two African American characters.
- Warner, Gary. One Life to Live: Thirty Years of Memories. Hyperion Books (ISBN 0786863676)
- Holly, Ellen. One Life: An Autobiography of an African American Actress. Kodansha America, 1998 (ISBN 1568361971)