Diahann Carroll, Pioneering Actress on ‘Julia’ and ‘Dynasty,’ Dies at 84

By Mike Barnes
Hollywood Reporter, Edited


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.

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.

Carroll made perhaps her biggest mark on the big screen with her scrappy title-role performance in Claudine (1974), playing a Harlem woman on welfare who raises six children on her own and falls for a garbage collector (James Earl Jones).

The part was originally given to her dear friend, Diana Sands. But when Sands (who had played Julia Baker’s cousin on several episodes of Julia) was stricken with cancer, she suggested Carroll take her place. 

“The producers said, ‘How can she do this role? No one would believe she could do it,’” Carroll said. “I remember the headline in the paper: ‘Would you believe Jackie Onassis as a welfare mother?’ Ö The very coupling of the name Jackie Onassis and Diahann Carroll is very interesting, if you think about it. Their question was, how do we make anyone believe that she has [six] children? And to be nominated for an Academy Award, to do that, it was the best, the best.”

Carol Diahann Johnson was born in Fordham Hospital in the Bronx on July 17, 1935. Her father, John, was a subway conductor when she was young, and her mother, Mabel, a nurse. She earned admission to the High School of Music & Art, where Billy Dee Williams was a classmate.

At 15, she began to model clothing for black-audience magazines like Ebony, Tan and Jet. Her dad disapproved at first, then began to reconsider when she told him she had earned $600 for a session.  

Her parents drove her to Philadelphia on many weekends so she could be a contestant on the TV talent show Teen Club, hosted by bandleader Paul Whiteman. And then she won several times on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts program, where she first billed herself as Diahann Carroll.

After enrolling at NYU to study psychology, she appeared on the Dennis James-hosted ABC talent show Chance of a Lifetime in 1953 and won for several weeks. One of her rewards was a regular engagement to perform at the famed Latin Quarter nightclub in Manhattan. 

At the end of 1954, she made her Broadway debut as the young star of the Truman Capote-Harold Arlen musical House of Flowers. Walter Kerr in The New York Herald Tribune called her “a plaintive and extraordinarily appealing ingenue.” 

She met Sidney Poitier on that film, thus beginning what she described as a “very turbulent” nine-year romance with him. (Carroll then had her first non-singing movie role, playing a schoolteacher opposite Poitier, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in 1961’s Paris Blues).

She would become renowned for her phrasing, partially a result of her studying with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio.

She was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 2011.

She was married four times: to Monte Kay, a manager and a casting consultant on House of Flowers; to Freddie Glusman, a Las Vegas clothier (that union lasted just a few weeks); to magazine editor Robert DeLeon (he died in an auto accident in 1977); and to singer Vic Damone (from 1987 until their 1996 divorce). She also had a three-year romance with talk-show host David Frost.

In addition to her daughter, survivors include her grandchildren, August and Sydney.

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