Diahann Carroll, the Oscar-nominated actor and singer who won critical acclaim as the first black woman to star in a non-servant lead role in a TV series as Julia, has died. She was 84.
Carroll’s daughter, Susan Kay, told the Associated Press her mother died on Friday in Los Angeles of cancer. During her long career, Carroll earned a Tony award for the musical No Strings and an Academy Award nomination for Claudine.
But she was perhaps best known for her pioneering work on Julia. Carroll played Julia Baker, a nurse whose husband had been killed in Vietnam, in the groundbreaking situation comedy that aired from 1968 to 1971.
Although she was not the first black woman to star in her own TV show (Ethel Waters played a maid in the 1950s series Beulah), she was the first to star as someone other than a servant. NBC executives were wary about putting Julia on the network during the racial unrest of the 1960s, but it was an immediate hit.
It had its critics, though, including some who said Carroll’s character, who is the mother of a young son, was not a realistic portrayal of a black American woman in the 1960s. “They said it was a fantasy,” Carroll recalled in 1998. “All of this was untrue. Much about the character of Julia I took from my own life, my family.”
Not shy when it came to confronting racial barriers, Carroll won her Tony portraying a high-fashion American model in Paris who has a love affair with a white American author in the 1959 Richard Rodgers musical No Strings. 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”.
She appeared often in plays previously considered exclusive territory for white actors: Same Time, Next Year, Agnes of God and Sunset Boulevard (as faded star Norma Desmond, the role played by Gloria Swanson in the 1950 film).
“I like to think that I opened doors for other women, although that wasn’t my original intention,” she said in 2002.
Her film career was sporadic. She began with a secondary role in Carmen Jones in 1954 and five years later appeared in Porgy and Bess, although her singing voice was dubbed because it wasn’t considered strong enough for the Gershwin opera. Her other films included Goodbye Again, Hurry Sundown, Paris Blues and The Split.
The 1974 film Claudine provided her most memorable role. She played a hard-bitten single mother of six who finds romance in Harlem with a garbage man played by James Earl Jones.
She was asked why she didn’t make more films after Claudine. “Have you seen another film script with a starring role with the character of Claudine? I haven’t.” She also said to another reporter: “I’m sometimes amazed at how few people realize what it takes for a black woman to survive in this business.”
In the 1980s, she appeared in the long-running prime-time soap opera Dynasty for three years. More recently, she had a number of guest spots and small roles in TV series, including playing the mother of Isaiah Washington’s character, Dr Preston Burke, on Grey’s Anatomy.
In her 1998 memoir Diahann, Carroll traced her turbulent romantic life, which included liaisons with Harry Belafonte, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Sammy Davis Jr, Sidney Poitier and David Frost. She even became engaged to Frost, but the engagement was canceled.
An early marriage to the nightclub owner Monte Kay resulted in Carroll’s only child, Suzanne, as well as a divorce. She also divorced her second husband, the retail executive Freddie Glusman, later marrying the magazine editor Robert DeLeon, who died.
Her most celebrated marriage was in 1987, to the singer Vic Damone, and the two appeared together in nightclubs. But they separated in 1991 and divorced several years later.
After she was treated for breast cancer in 1998, she spoke out for more money for research and for free screening for women who couldn’t afford mammograms. “We all look forward to the day that mastectomies, chemotherapy and radiation are considered barbaric,” Carroll told a gathering in 2000.
“Diahann Carroll walked this earth for 84 years and broke ground with every footstep. An icon. One of the all-time greats,” director Ava DuVernay wrote on Twitter. “She blazed trails through dense forests and elegantly left diamonds along the path for the rest of us to follow. Extraordinary life. Thank you, Ms. Carroll.”