Los Angeles, 5 October 2019 (dpa/MIA) – Diahann Carroll, 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,” and to win a lead actress Tony Award, has died. She was 84.
The Oscar-nominated actress and breast cancer survivor, who also starred in “Dynasty” and “White Collar,” died of cancer, her daughter Suzanne Kay said Friday.
The leggy beauty burst onto 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.
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. 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.
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 modelling classes and attended Music and Art High School with Billy Dee Williams, who would later co-star with her in “Dynasty,” “Lonesome Dove: The Series” and the widely panned “Star Wars Christmas Special.”
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.
Carroll’s musical stage credits also include a long run in the mid-1990s as Norma Desmond in the Toronto production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical version of “Sunset Boulevard.” In 2010, she starred in an autobiographical musical one-nighter at the Annenberg Theatre in Palm Springs, “Diahann Carroll: The Lady, The Music, The Legend,” which PBS taped for subsequent airing that fall.
Late in life, Carroll suffered throat issues that caused her to stop singing.
Carroll is survived by her daughter, who is a journalist and producer, and two grandchildren.