Pioneering role in ‘Julia’ shattered stereotypes of Black actresses
BY NARDINE SAID
LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS
Diahann Carroll was the elegant star of stage and screen who changed the course of television history as the first African American woman to shatter stereotypes, in 1968’s ground-breaking sitcom “Julia.’’
The Oscar-nominated actress and breast cancer survivor, who also starred in “Dynasty” and “White Collar,” died of cancer on Oct. 4, her daughter Suzanne Kay.
The leggy beauty burst on the scene among the first Black actresses to star in studio films. Assisted by her breathy, deep voice, the established recording artist debuted on the big screen in 1954’s Oscar-nominated adaptation of “Carmen Jones,” a retelling of the Bizet opera with an all-Black cast alongside Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte and Pearl Bailey.
In 1959, she headlined the musical “Porgy and Bess” with Dandridge, Sidney Poitier and Sammy Davis Jr.
In the TV series “Julia,’’ she played widowed nurse Julia Baker raising her son, Corey (Marc Copage).
Tony award, Oscar nod
The dynamic entertainer, whose TV credits also include “A Different World” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” sang in nightclubs and on the Broadway stage, headlined in Las Vegas with her fourth husband, Vic Damone, and notched Emmy, Grammy and Golden Globe nominations.
Carroll was nominated for a lead-actress Oscar for her turn as a welfare mom in the 1974 comedy “Claudine” and earned a Tony Award in 1962 for Richard Rodgers’ “No Strings.”
In the late 1960s, Carroll was cast in “Julia,” the enormously successful NBC sitcom that featured her as a war-widowed nurse raising a son.
Departure from maids
The pioneering role was a departure from predecessors that typically tapped Black women to play domestic workers and was credited with shattering stereotypes ahead of “The Cosby Show,” which didn’t premiere until 1984.
“That experience for television,” she said in a 2011 interview with the Archive of American Television, “everyone was on the line and everyone was scared because we were saying to the country, ‘We’re going to present a very upper-middle-class Black woman raising her child and her major concentration will not be about suffering in the ghetto.
“We don’t know if you’re going to buy it but this is what we’re going to do. Take a different point of view of Blacks in the United States.’”
In the Aaron Spelling hit series “Dynasty,” Carroll embodied another atypical Black woman on television: the deliciously catty Dominique Deveraux, Blake Carrington’s long-lost, illegitimate half-sister, whom she emphatically dubbed the “first Black bitch on prime-time television.”
Perhaps taking a page out of Deveraux’s handbook, Carroll persevered in Hollywood with her long-cultivated combination of class and sass, turning heads with her extravagant taste in clothing and lavish lifestyle.
“Dominique brought a shot in the arm when ‘Dynasty’ needed it. I had a hell of a good time when I was there,” she told TV Guide.
Young dancer, model
Born Carol Diahann Johnson in 1935 in the Bronx, she moved to Harlem with her parents at a young age.
With their support, she enrolled in dance, singing and modeling classes and attended Music and Art High School with Billy Dee Williams, who would later costar with her in “Dynasty,” “Lonesome Dove: The Series” and the widely panned “Star Wars Christmas Special.”
By 15, the leggy teen was modeling for Ebony, and by 18 she got her big singing break after winning the televised talent show “Chance of a Lifetime” in 1954. She received a cash prize in addition to being booked at the famed Latin Quarter nightclub in New York City.
On to Broadway
Later that year, she hit the big screen as a bit player in Otto Preminger’s adaptation of “Carmen Jones” with Dandridge and Belafonte and made her Broadway debut in “House of Flowers.”
“I loved every moment of it,” she told the Los Angeles Times of her early break. “I just assumed everyone’s career went through the same machinations. It wasn’t until much later that I realized how fortunate I had been.”
The stage musical, a collaboration of Truman Capote and Harold Arlen, flopped despite the impressive talent roster that included Pearl Bailey and Alvin Ailey in the cast and Peter Brook directing.
Treated like ‘novelty’
Hollywood wasn’t that friendly to Carroll either when she auditioned in the 1950s – L.A. was less integrated than New York.
“We have to remember we didn’t see movies or television that involved Black people. That didn’t make me comfortable,” she said, noting that producers “treated me like a novelty, not like I am an actress. You have to go away from those people. You must stay within your range.”
While working on “House of Flowers,” Carroll fell for casting director Monte Kay, with whom she had daughter Suzanne. She was only a teenager and they “had a lot of growing up to do,” she said, but was grateful for the union because it produced her daughter.
Affair with Poitier
It only took a few days into working on 1959’s “Porgy and Bess” for Poitier to take notice of his beautiful costar, whose nine-year love affair with him would result in the demise of his first marriage, to model Juanita Harvey.
“She had fantastic cheekbones, perfect teeth and dark, mysterious eyes,” Poitier said of Carroll in People magazine. “She was confident, inviting, sensuous – and she moved with a rhythm that absolutely tantalized me.
“I invited her to dinner, telling her that since we were both married we would talk about our absent loved ones. And we did. I acted very, very gentlemanly for weeks, but halfway through the picture we fell in love. As I got to know her, I realized she was one of the brightest women I had ever known.”
The two were paired again for 1961’s romantic musical “Paris Blues,” but it took Poitier six years to end his marriage, which he stayed in for the sake of his four children.
After his divorce, he requested that he and Carroll live together for six months so he “wouldn’t be jumping from one marriage straight into another. But she wouldn’t do it. It was then that our relationship started to unravel.”
Carroll, a self-described “terrible romantic, just ridiculously so,” continued to make headlines with her love life.
She was married briefly to a Las Vegas businessman, but dismissed that episode as “a silly marriage and a silly divorce.”
She was briefly engaged to English journalist David Frost, but they never married. Her third husband, Robert A. DeLeon, was much younger than she was, but she said he was “a complex, brilliant young man.”
Together, the two launched their SuMo production company which yielded her well-received CBS variety series, “The Diahann Carroll Show,” in 1976. DeLeon died a year later.
‘No Strings’ Tony
In 1962, she starred in the Broadway musical “No Strings,” Richard Rodgers’ now-forgotten stab at writing lyrics as well as music after the 1960 death of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II.
The role is said to have been written specifically for her and told the story of a model living in Paris who gets involved in an interracial romance with an American writer.
She won a 1962 Tony Award for best actress in a musical for the role and it opened the door for her TV career. But her glamorous image – and characters- nearly impeded her casting in “Julia” because she didn’t appear relatable for the housewife audience the show was after.
Stress of ‘Julia’
Carroll relocated from New York to California with her daughter for “Julia” and garnered a Golden Globe for female TV star and a nomination for best TV show, among other nods.
She also earned a lead actress in a comedy Emmy nomination in 1969. Because the show was sponsored by toymaker Mattel, she served as the model for one of the first Black Barbie dolls and found her likeness plastered on a variety of merchandise, including lunch boxes and coloring books.
Though “Julia” performed, it aired amid the Vietnam protests, assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and riots across the country. It was criticized for being trite, unrealistic and a far cry from the bitter realities plaguing African Americans.
Among the grievances: There was no Black male or father figure for Julia’s son to relate to. She and her costars were even scrutinized for wearing fancy clothes and living in an unaffordable apartment on the show.
Carroll often found herself having to defend the show, though she usually directed it to the creative powers, and was hospitalized twice because of stress. After three seasons, Carroll declined to renew her contract.
‘Claudine’ to ‘Dynasty’
She took a grittier turn in the titular role of 1974’s “Claudine,” which earned Carroll her one and only Oscar nomination as a mother struggling to raise her six children on welfare who falls for a garbage collector, played by James Earl Jones.
She followed up that performance by filling in for Elizabeth Ashley in the well-received 1983 play “Agnes of God,” portraying a psychiatrist.
Then came the smash hit “Dynasty,” which she appeared on from 1984 until to 1987. She cut out before the show went off the air in 1989 and landed a guest stint on Cosby’s NBC sitcom “A Different World,” for which she got an Emmy nomination.
When “Monster’s Ball” star Halle Berry became the first Black actress to win an Oscar in the lead actress category in 2002, Carroll was among the African American actresses Berry dedicated her award to, saying: “This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll.
“It’s for the women that stand beside me: Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. And it’s for every nameless faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”
The following year, Berry presented Carroll with the groundbreaking-role tribute during the TV Land Awards.
In 2008, Carroll showcased her illustrious legs on the cover of her memoir, “The Legs Are the Last to Go: Aging, Acting, Marrying and Other Things I Learned the Hard Way.”
“I’m going to admit I’m very proud of them,” she said in an NPR interview. “They are holding up amazingly well.”
Carroll is survived by her daughter, who is a journalist and producer, and two grandchildren.