She also landed an historic Tony Award, plus an Oscar nomination for her performance in ‘Claudine.’
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, died Friday. She was 84.
Carroll died at her home in Los Angeles after a long bout with cancer, her daughter, producer-journalist Suzanne Kay, told The Hollywood Reporter.
Carroll was known as a Las Vegas and nightclub performer and for her performances on Broadway and in the Hollywood musicals Carmen Jones and Porgy & Bess when she was approached by an NBC executive to star as 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,” she said in a 1998 chat for the website The Interviews: An Oral History of Television. “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.’ ”
However, when Carroll learned that Hal Kanter, the veteran screenwriter who created the show, thought she was too glamorous for the part, she was determined to change his mind. She altered her hairstyle and mastered the pilot script, quickly convincing him that she was the right woman.
Carroll thus became the first African American female to star in a non-stereotypical role in her own primetime network series. (Several actresses portrayed a maid on ABC’s Beulah in the early 1950s.)
Her character Baker, whose husband had died in Vietnam, worked for a doctor (Lloyd Nolan) at an aerospace company; she was educated and outspoken, and she dated men (including characters played by Fred Williamson, Paul Winfield and Don Marshall) who were successful, too.
“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,'” Carroll noted.
“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.”
Julia, which premiered in September 1968, finished No. 7 in the ratings in the first of its three seasons, and Carroll received an Emmy nomination and a Golden Globe for her work.
While recuperating after starring on Broadway in Agnes of God, Carroll had found herself digging Dynasty — “Isn’t this the biggest hoot?” she said — and lobbied producer Aaron Spelling for a role on his series.
“They’ve done everything [on the show]. They’ve done incest, homosexuality, murder. I think they’re slowly inching their way toward interracial,” she recalled in a 1984 piece for People magazine. “I want to be wealthy and ruthless … I want to be the first black bitch on television.”
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