|One Life to Live character|
|Portrayed by||Ellen Holly|
|First appearance||October 7, 1968|
|Last appearance||December 1985|
|Created by||Agnes Nixon|
Carla Gray is a fictional character from the American soap opera One Life to Live, played by actress Ellen Holly. The role appeared from October 1968 through December 1980, and from May 1983 through 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.
At the series debut of One Life to Live in July 1968, black American former housemaid Sadie Gray (Lillian Hayman) lives in an apartment next door to the white Polish American Wolek family and works as the manager of housekeeping for Llanview Hospital. Sadie acts mainly as a confidante for troubled heroine Anna Wolek (Doris Belack) but makes several passing references to a daughter that she vaguely says is "lost to her." Anna and the rest of the Woleks assume that Sadie's daughter Carla is dead.
A few months into the series' run, Dr. Jim Craig (Robert Milli) begins treating a young woman named "Clara Benari," whose illness seems to be psychosomatic — her physical symptoms stem from some unstated mental conflict. Clara, who is assumed to be Italian American, begins working as Jim's receptionist. Very quickly, Clara begins dating black American resident physician Price Trainor (Peter DeAnda). ABC received several angry letters decrying the portrayal of a black man dating a white woman.
Carla soon strikes up a friendship with Anna herself. On a visit to the Wolek apartment, Clara runs into Sadie. It is abruptly revealed that "Clara Benari" is Carla Gray, who had not died but run away from home at an early age. Sadie is furious to learn that her daughter was pretending to be white, and Carla herself is mortified — but not enough to end her ruse there and then. Although heartbroken, Sadie does not reveal her daughter's secret.
While Carla and Sadie try to work out their issues, Carla becomes embroiled in a love triangle. Her employer Jim Craig also falls in love with her, and she reciprocates his feelings. Carla divulges her secret to Jim. Not only is he fine with her true racial makeup, he asks her to marry him, allowing her a chance to continue publicly as "Clara Benari." She briefly accepts the proposal but eventually returns his ring, after realizing she would only be marrying him in order to keep perpetuating a lie. After breaking up with Jim, Carla comes clean to everyone in Llanview about her true heritage, including Price. Price is not in the least sympathetic to Carla's predicament. If anything, he is even angrier than Sadie at Carla's ruse. The revelation ruins their relationship once and for all. Price leaves town soon afterwards. Carla is able to mend fences with her mother, though.
In 1970, Carla finds 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 is a slick career politician who seems to promise the good life that Carla desires. Ed is a blue-collar, "salt of the earth" workingman who initially considers Carla to be a stuck-up princess. In time though, Ed proves to be the love of Carla's life, and the two became engaged in 1973. However, the road to the altar is not an easy one. Ed blames himself for the death of his good friend Meredith Lord Wolek (Lynn Benesch), who is killed during a hostage crisis at the Lord family estate, Llanfair at the same time Carla finds her life on the line. This forces them to postpone the wedding as Carla is first nearly killed when her brakes fail and again when she is lured to the jeweler's by a mysterious man who poses as a policeman. Carla meets with the man, who points a gun at her and tries to kill her until Joe Riley came to her rescue. The man after Carla is revealed to be Lester Brock, the brother of Earl Brock, who blamed Ed for the murder of his brother. Ed and Carla make it to the altar in October and, surrounded by friends and family, they are married. Carla and Ed had also make proceedings to adopt Joshua 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 divorces 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 leaves Llanview. She returns in 1983 and, after having attended law school in her absence, Carla becomes an Assistant District Attorney. In this new position, she later has to prosecute Ed on manslaughter charges for a police drug bust gone wrong. Also during this time, she is involved with another love triangle. Carla still has feelings for Ed, but she falls in love and nearly marries a football star-turned night club owner Alec Lowndes (Roger Hill). It takes time for Carla to get over that situation. After Alec is out of the picture, she eventually comes back to Ed.
In September 1985, Carla accepts a job in Arizona similar to what she was doing in Llanview. She leaves with her mother Sadie and moves to Arizona. Soon after Ed and their son Josh leave town and move to Arizona to be with them. Sadie dies off-screen in the 1990s. Ed returns to Llanview in 2000 after grandson Jared Hall (Herve Clermont) accepts a job practicing law.
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 soap operas The Guiding Light and Another World and already attempted to integrate African-American characters and actors into these shows, but with limited success. A CBS soap opera Love Is a Many Splendored Thing featured an Asian American as a leading heroine, but the character was written out after 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 white and black audiences because of her light-skinned 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 memoir, 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 (with One Life to Live having the highest number of non-white viewers), 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 new white characters, and about being summarily dismissed in 1985 by executive producer and writing consultant Paul Rauch. Rauch fired every black lead or recurring character on the show during his tenure.
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 One Life to Live 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)