Diahann Carroll, Tony Winner, First Black Woman to Star in Own TV Series, Dies at 84
Singer and Tony-winning, Oscar-nominated actress Diahann Carroll, the first African American woman to star in her own TV series, has died at at her home in Los Angeles after a long bout with cancer. She was 84.
Her daughter, Suzanne Kay, confirmed the news.
Carroll is perhaps best remembered by younger audiences for her role as the conniving Dominique Deveraux on the nighttime soap “Dynasty” in the mid-’80s. But her first major television assignment was starring as the middle-class single mother Julia in a 1968 sitcom that was praised for featuring an African American in the title role as much as it was criticized for ignoring the civil rights struggle. The series, which ran for three years, was a trailblazer in leading to greater visibility for African American characters on series television.
The actress characterized by svelte cosmopolitan sophistication had come to television via the musical theater. In the early 1960s she won a Tony as the star of Richard Rodgers’ musical “No Strings”; the role had been written especially for her. Carroll had previously been featured in supporting roles in such films as “Carmen Jones” and “Porgy and Bess.” She was only the fourth black actress to be nominated for the best actress Oscar, for the 1974 romantic drama “Claudine.”
Despite her great beauty and undeniable talents as a performer, Carroll sometimes struggled to find roles. When once asked why she did little film work after “Claudine,” she replied incredulously, “Have you seen another film script with a starring role with the character of Claudine? I haven’t.” She told another reporter, “I’m sometimes amazed at how few people realize what it takes for a black woman to survive in this business.”
Carroll made her Broadway debut at age 19 in the Harold Arlen musical “House of Flowers,” and though it was short-lived, Carroll’s notices brought her substantial attention and led to her first movie role in “Carmen Jones.” It would be followed by a role in the 1959 film version of “Porgy and Bess.” Carroll made her TV debut on “The Red Skelton Show” and appeared on other variety programs fronted by Steve Allen, Garry Moore, Jack Paar and Danny Kaye, as well as on “The Ed Sulivan Show.” She acted in TV dramas including “Peter Gunn” and “Naked City.”
Her early recordings include “Porgy and Bess” with the Andre Previn Trio, “Diahann Carroll Sings Harold Arlen,” “Best Beat Forward” and “Showstopper.” Later recordings include her 1978 tribute to Ethel Waters and 1997’s “The Time of My Life.”
Her dramatic film debut came in 1960 in “Paris Blues,” opposite Sidney Poitier, followed by a small role in the French drama “Goodbye Again.”
After having seen her in “House of Flowers,” songwriter Richard Rodgers promised he would one day write a vehicle for Carroll. That turned out to be “No Strings,” the 1962 musical about an interracial romance between a writer and a fashion model.
“Miss Carroll brings glowing personal beauty to the role of the model and her singing captures many moods,” the New York Times said. For her work Carroll picked up the Tony as best actress in a musical.
In between concert and nightclub appearances, Carroll appeared in such film dramas as 1967’s “Hurry Sundown” and “The Split,” made the following year. Then in 1968 she starred in the series “Julia,” a first for an African American actress, following in the footsteps of Bill Cosby a few short years earlier in “I Spy.” Premiering at the height of the civil rights struggle, “Julia,” with its decidedly apolitical, middle class heroine, was attacked by militants for being too lenient to the white community. But Carroll persevered, and the series proved popular in its three-season run, opening doors to other series led by African Americans.
The 1974 feature “Claudine,” which co-starred James Earl Jones, was another rarity, a role for a strong, independent African American woman with deep roots in family. Her work brought Carroll an Oscar nomination as best actress.
Several TV movies followed over the next decade including “Death Scream,” “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” “Sister, Sister,” “Murder in Black and White,” “From the Dead of Night” and miniseries “Roots: The Next Generation.”
Carroll returned to series television in the mid-’80s for “Dynasty,” where she stepped out of her nice-girl persona to portray the scheming, deceitful Dominique Deveraux.
She returned to the bigscreen in 1991 for an appearance in musical film “The Five Heartbeats” and again in 1997 for the well-regarded drama “Eve’s Bayou.”
Carroll also occupied herself with theater projects including “Agnes of God” on Broadway in 1982 and “Same Time, Next Year” in Los Angeles; she starred as Norma Desmond in the Toronto production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard” in 1995.
Notable telepics later in her career included “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years,” alongside Ruby Dee, and “Sally Hemings: An American Scandal.”
Carroll recurred on series including “A Different World” (drawing an Emmy nomination in 1989), “Lonesome Dove: The Series,” “Grey’s Anatomy” (picking up another Emmy nom in 2008), “Diary of a Single Mom” and on USA’s “White Collar” as June Ellington.
Carroll made her first New York nightclub appearance in 40 years with the 2006 offering “The Life and Times of Diahann Carroll,” drawing an ecstatic review from the New York Times: “An astonishingly youthful and glamorous 70-year-old grandmother, she presents herself as a down-to-earth realist about the joys and rigors of show business. … Her air of casually worn grandeur only enhances the unpretentious honesty of her recollections.”
In 2010 she appeared, along with a number of other notable women, in the breast cancer documentary “1 a Minute.”
She appeared in the Tina Gordon Chism-helmed film “Peeples” in 2013.
Carol Diahann Johnson hailed from the Bronx and attended the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan, where she also began modeling for African American publications. She enrolled at NYU to study sociology, but after winning recognition on the TV talent show “Chance of a Lifetime,” she left school and was booked by Lou Walters (father of Barbara Walters) into the Latin Quarter nightclub for a one-week engagement. The run was expanded to four weeks and succeeded by other nightclub appearances. Then she made her Broadway and bigscreen debuts.
In 1986, Carroll released her frank autobiography “Diahann,” which detailed the triumphs of her professional life and some of the torments of her personal life.
Carroll was married four times, to talent manager and music producer Monte Kay, retailer Fred Glusman, editor Robert DeLeon and singer Vic Damone. Survivors include a daughter, Suzanne Kay, a journalist and screenwriter, and two grandchildren, August and Sydney.
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