Legendary Diahann Carroll, the captivating singer and actress who came from the Bronx to win a Tony Award, receive an Oscar nomination and make television history with her turns on Julia and Dynasty, has died Friday. She was 84. Carroll died at her home in Los Angeles after a long battle with cancer.
I like to think that I opened doors for other women, although that wasn’t my original intention.
Carroll was born Carol Diann Johnson in the Bronx, New York, in 1935. When Carroll was an infant, the family moved to Harlem, where she grew up. She took piano lessons regularly as a child and first began singing around age 6, as a member of the Tiny Tots choir in Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. At 10 years old, the musically-gifted Carroll received a scholarship from the Metropolitan Opera to study at New York’s High School of Music and Art, and was a classmate of Billy Dee Williams. In many interviews about her childhood, Diahann Carroll recalls her parents’ support, enrolling her in dance, singing, and modeling classes.
As a teenager she became interested in fashion and at age 14, she sent a picture of herself to the fashion editor at Ebony. She later was one of four teenage girls to win a modeling assignment for Johnson Publishing, Ebony’s parent company. She also began entering television contests, including ‘Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts’, under the name Diahann Carroll. A spot she won – which also allowed her to perform on the daily radio show.
After graduating from high school, she attended New York University, majoring in sociology, but she left before graduating to pursue a show-business career, promising her family that if the career did not materialize after two years, she would return to college. Diahann Carroll’s big break came at 18, when she appeared as a contestant on the DuMont Television Network program, Chance of a Lifetime, hosted by Dennis James. On the show, which aired January 8, 1954, she took the $1,000 top prize for a rendition of the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein song, ‘Why Was I Born?’ She went on to win the following four weeks. Engagements at Manhattan’s Café Society and Latin Quarter nightclubs soon followed.
Diahann Carroll’s film debut was a supporting role in Carmen Jones (1954) as a friend to the sultry lead character played by Dorothy Dandridge. That same year, her big break came when Truman Capote chose her for a leading part in the Broadway musical ‘House of Flowers’, based on his short story and for which he wrote the book and lyrics. Carroll, who played a young sex worker in a Caribbean island bordello, had the best numbers, ‘A Sleepin’ Bee’ and ‘I Never Has Seen Snow’. In 1959 she played the role of Clara in a film adaptation of George Gershwin’s ‘Porgy and Bess’, starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge, but her character’s singing parts were dubbed by opera singer Loulie Jean Norman.
But in her early days at NBC, the Harlem native encountered a stark reminder of her groundbreaking status. In a 2014 episode of PBS’s ‘Pioneers of Television’, Carroll recalled that NBC’s makeup department did not have makeup for an actress of her complexion. “The studio had only dealt with the little American girls or European girls”, Carroll said. “How could you have a makeup department and you don’t have makeup for every skin in the United States of America?”
She made a guest appearance in the series Peter Gunn, in the 1960 episode ‘Sing a Song of Murder’, and starred with Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman, and good friend Joanne Woodward in the 1961 film Paris Blues.
Not shy when it came to confronting racial barriers, Carroll won her Tony portraying Barbara Woodruff, a high-fashion American model in Paris, who has a love affair with a white American author in the 1959 Samuel A. Taylor and Richard Rodgers Braodway musical ‘No Strings’ about civil rights, marking the first time a African American woman had ever won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical. Critic Walter Kerr described her as “a girl with a sweet smile, brilliant dark eyes and a profile regal enough to belong on a coin”.
Again for Preminger, in ‘Hurry Sundown’ (1967), set in rural 1940s Georgia, she played an elegant local schoolteacher who had gone north and been corrupted. Despite a terrible script, Carroll came off slightly better than her co-stars, Michael Caine and Jane Fonda, in this condescending melodrama on race relations.
Carroll was then nominated for a lead actress Oscar for the titular role in 1974’s ‘Claudine’, starring alongside James Earl Jones. The role of Claudine had been written specifically for actress Diana Sands, (who had made guest appearances on Julia as Carroll’s cousin Sara) but shortly before filming was to begin, Sands found out that she was terminally ill with cancer. Sands attempted to carry on with the role, but as filming began, she became too ill to continue, and recommended her friend Carroll take over the role. Sadly, Sands would not live to see Claudine. She died in September 1973; Claudine, starring Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones, was released in April 1974.
On top of her critical feature film and stage success, Carroll achieved critical acclaim on the small screen and groundbreaking notoriety for playing the titular role in the NBC sitcom ‘Julia’. The series, which aired from 1968 to 1971, saw Carroll play Julia Baker, a nurse whose Army pilot husband had been shot down in Vietnam. This role saw the first time a African-American woman had ever starred in a non-servant role on television. That role won – as the first African American – her the Golden Globe Award for ‘Best Actress In A Television Series’ in 1968, and the first African American woman to receive an Emmy nomination in 1969.
Diahann Carroll and Frank Sinatra
But the show was controversial amid the racial unrest that followed the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. An Ebony article that year noted that ‘for all its merits as a television ‘first’ ‘, the sitcom had drawn criticism ‘for not projecting a male head-of-the-family image’ and “for showing Julia and [her] son leading a happily integrated life among middle class whites”. In a 2008 interview with NPR’s News & Notes, Carroll said she was ‘very proud’ of that role, “I look back with great pride”, Carroll told host Farai Chideya. And in 2011, she was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame.
The Diahann Carroll Show is a series of four musical variety television specials, that aired on CBS in 1976. The show was a summer replacement for The Carol Burnett Show. The series’ four episodes were taped over a period of five days.
Guests on the premiere episode included Johnny Mathis (with whom Carroll sang You Are So Beautiful) and with Telly Savalas and Sammy Davis Jr. (with whom she sang a medley of songs from Porgy and Bess). Other guests during the brief season included composer Marvin Hamlisch, Betty White, and Phyllis Diller. Carroll’s costumes were designed by famous fashion designer Bob Mackie.
Diahann Carroll & Johnny Mathis duet the song ‘You Are So Beautiful’ on her show, July 1976
Some of her earlier work also included appearances on shows hosted by Jack Paar, Merv Griffin, Johnny Carson, Judy Garland, and Ed Sullivan, and on The Hollywood Palace variety show. In 1984, Carroll joined the primetime soap opera ‘Dynasty’ as the mixed-race jet-set diva Dominique Deveraux, half-sister of Blake Carrington. Her high-profile role on ‘Dynasty’ also reunited her with schoolmate Billy Dee Williams, who briefly played her onscreen husband Brady Lloyd.
Her character, Dominique Deveraux, was shrouded in mystery when she joined ‘Dynasty’ in its fourth season. Carroll had sought out the role after falling in love with the soap. “I thought, ‘If this isn’t the biggest hoot I’ve ever seen, and the world is loving it,’ ” she said in a 1998 interview with the Television Academy Foundation. “Everyone was elegant, everyone was rich, everyone was traveling all over the world, and I said, ‘That’s what I want to do. That’s what I need to do”.
Carroll reached out to Aaron Spelling and suggested to one of the producer’s colleagues that ‘Dynasty’ – which had dealt, however controversially, with homosexuality and other hot-button issues – had tackled just about everything except racial integration. To do that, they first had to integrate the cast.
But nothing happened until Barbra Streisand invited Carroll to sing a song from ‘Yentl’ at the 1983 Golden Globe Awards. Knowing Aaron Spelling would be there, she dressed the part. After the ceremony, Carroll went to the private Los Angeles nightclub where Spelling and his colleagues were celebrating. Spelling later told People that after seeing Carroll, he and ‘Dynasty’ co-creator Esther Shapiro looked at each other and said, “My God, she is ‘Dynasty”.
Dominique Deveraux turned out to be the surprise half-sister of oil baron Blake Carrington. The role led to epic showdown with Blake’s vindictive ex-wife, Alexis (Joan Collins).
As the character owned a music company and was a successful singer, the soap also gave Carroll the chance to display her vocal talents, already apparent from her several albums and club appearances. Carroll, always a very classy lady, ‘Dynasty’ made her a true fashion icon, especially for the African American. She remained on the show until 1987, simultaneously making several appearances on its short-lived spin-off, The Colbys. She received her third Emmy nomination in 1989 for her recurring role as Marion Gilbert in ‘A Different World’.
In 1991, Carroll played the role of Eleanor Potter, the wife of Jimmy Potter, portrayed by Chuck Patterson, in ‘The Five Heartbeats’, a musical drama film in which Jimmy manages a vocal group. In this role, Carroll was a doting, concerned, and protective wife alongside actor and musician Robert Townsend, Michael Wright, and others. In a 1995 reunion with Billy Dee Williams in ‘Lonesome Dove: The Series’, she played Mrs. Greyson, the wife of Williams’ character. In 1996, Carroll starred as the self-loving and deluded silent movie star Norma Desmond in the Canadian production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical version of the classic film ‘Sunset Boulevard’. In 2001, Carroll made her animation début in ‘The Legend of Tarzan’, in which she voiced Queen La, an evil sorceress and ruler of the ancient city of Opar.
On stage, Carroll broke barriers by playing roles traditionally considered for white actresses, such as ‘Same Time, Next Year’, ‘Agnes of God’, and ‘Sunset Boulevard’. In 2002, Carroll said of these roles, “I like to think that I opened doors for other women, although that wasn’t my original intention”.
Carroll continued to somewhat consistently work in film, television, stage – and even made a return to the nightclub world in 2006, at Feinstein’s at the Regency. In 2006, she appeared in the television medical drama ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ as Jane Burke, the demanding mother of Dr. Preston Burke. In December 2008, Carroll was cast in USA Network’s series ‘White Collar’ as June, the savvy widow who rents out her guest room to Neal Caffrey. In 2010, Carroll was featured in UniGlobe Entertainment’s breast cancer docudrama titled, ‘1 a Minute’, and she appeared as Nana in two Lifetime movies: ‘At Risk’ and ‘The Front’, movie adaptations of two Patricia Cornwell novels. In addition to being honored at Oprah’s 2006 Legends Ball, Carroll appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1987 and 2006, and led an Oprah’s Master Class in 2013. During her appearance on Master Class, she spoke about her initial 1997 breast cancer diagnosis, and reaching the decision to eventually share it with the world.
Diahann Carroll was present on stage for the 2013 Emmy Awards, to briefly speak about being the first African American nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award. She was quoted as saying: “Talented Kerry Washington better win!” Kerry Washington erroneously stated that Carroll was the first African American performer ever to be nominated for an Emmy. Actually, at least three performers were nominated before Carroll, who was first nominated in 1963. These performers include: Ethel Waters for a guest appearance on Route 66, in 1962; Harry Belafonte, nominated in 1956 and 1961 and winning in 1960; and Sammy Davis Jr., who was nominated in 1956 with Belafonte.
Carroll was married four times, first to record producer Monte Kay in 1956. Her father boycotted the wedding ceremony which was presided over by Adam Clayton Powell Jr. at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. The marriage ended in 1962. The union produced a daughter, Suzanne Kay Bamford (born September 9, 1960), who became a freelance media journalist. In 1959, Carroll began a nine-year affair with married actor Sidney Poitier. She claimed that Poitier persuaded her to divorce her husband and he would leave his wife to be with her.
When Carroll got her divorce, Poitier did not keep up his end of the bargain, yet the relationship continued until 1968. Carroll dated and was engaged to British television host and producer David Frost from 1970 until 1973. In 1973, Carroll surprised the press by marrying Las Vegas boutique owner Fred Glusman. Several weeks later, she filed for divorce, charging Glusman with physical abuse. In 1975, Carroll married Robert DeLeon, a managing editor of Jet. She was widowed two years later when DeLeon was killed in a car crash. Carroll’s fourth marriage was to singer Vic Damone in 1987. The union, which Carroll admitted was turbulent, had a legal separation in 1991, reconciliation, and divorce in 1996.
A year later, Carroll was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997. She said the diagnosis ‘stunned’ her because there was no family history of breast cancer and she had always had a healthy lifestyle. She underwent nine weeks of radiation therapy, and had been clear since. Carroll frequently spoke out about the importance of early cancer detection, and prevention, free screening for those who couldn’t afford mammograms, and the need for more money to be invested in research.
Diahann Carroll was a transformative force for freedom. She identified with Dr King in the civil rights movement with a simple kiss. She brought down ancient barriers & built bridges. She left the world better than she found it.
She walked this earth for 84 years and broke ground with every footstep. An icon. One of the all-time greats. She blazed trails through dense forests and elegantly left diamonds along the path for the rest of us to follow. Thank you, Ms. Carroll.
Diahann Carroll died of cancer on October 4, 2019, in Los Angeles. Carroll is survived by her daughter Suzanne, and grandchildren August and Sydney. Our thoughts are with Carroll’s family and friends.