Tony award winning actress Diahann Carroll, who made television history on Julia and Dynasty, has died Friday.
Carroll died at her home in LA of cancer, her daughter, producer-journalist Suzanne Kay, told The Hollywood Reporter.
NBC approached Carroll to play Julia Baker, a widowed nurse raising a young son, on the comedy Julia. She didn’t want to do it.
“I really didn’t believe that this was a show that was going to work. I thought it was something that was going to leave someone’s consciousness in a very short period of time. I thought, ‘Let them go elsewhere.’ “
But when Carroll learned that Hal Kanter, the screenwriter who created the show, thought she was too glamorous for the part. She changed her hairstyle and mastered the pilot script, quickly convincing him that she was the right woman.
And she became the first African-American female to star in a non-stereotypical role in her OWN primetime network series. (Other actresses portrayed a maid on ABC’s Beulah in the early 50s.)
“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 is not going to be about suffering in the ghetto.’
Many people were incensed about that. They felt that [African Americans] didn’t have that many opportunities on television or in film to present our plight as the underdog … they felt the [real-world] suffering was much too acute to be so trivial as to present a middle-class woman who is dealing with the business of being a nurse.
But we were of the opinion that what we were doing was important, and we never left that point of view… even though some of that criticism of course was valid. We were of a mind that this was a different show. We were allowed to have this show.”
Carroll later played a much edgier character for three seasons on Dynasty and its spinoff The Colbys, delightfully dueling with fellow diva Alexis Carrington Colby (Joan Collins).
Carroll recalled in a 1984 piece for People magazine,
“Isn’t this the biggest hoot? They’ve done everything [on the show]. They’ve done incest, homosexuality, murder. I think they’re slowly inching their way toward interracial. I want to be wealthy and ruthless …
I want to be the first black bitch on television.”
(See evidence below.)
At 15, Carroll began to model clothing for black-audience magazines like Ebony,Tan and Jett. Her dad disapproved at first, then began to reconsider when she told him she had earned $600 for a session.
After enrolling at NYU to study psychology, she appeared an ABC talent show Chance of a Lifetime in 1953 and won for several weeks. One of her rewards was a regular engagement to perform at the famed Latin Quarter nightclub in Manhattan.
There, transgender pioneer Christine Jorgensen taught her how to “carry” herself onstage, she said, and she moved in with her manager, training and rehearsing every day.
Carroll became renowned for her phrasing, partially a result of her studying with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. In 1963, she earned the first of her four career Emmy noms for portraying a teacher yet again on Naked City.
More recently, Carroll had recurring roles as Isaiah Washington‘s mom on Grey’s Anatomy and as a Park Avenue widow on White Collar. She also appeared in such films as Eve’s Bayou (1997) and on stage as Norman Desmond in a musical version of Sunset Blvd.
Carroll recorded several albums during her career and wrote the memoirs Diahann, published in 1986, and The Legs Are the Last to Go: Aging, Acting, Marrying, Mothering and Other Things I Learned Along the Way, in 2008.
She was married four times: to Monte Kay, a manager and a casting consultant on House of Flowers; to Freddie Glusman, a Las Vegas clothier (that union lasted just a few weeks); to magazine editor Robert DeLeon (he died in an auto accident in 1977); and to singer Vic Damone (from 1987 until their 1996 divorce). She also had a three-year romance with talk-show host David Frost.
Diahann Carroll was 84.
This clip shows the humor with which they tackled racism with on Julia but it was still fine to say “colored” and “negro” at that time.