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Diahann Carroll (1935–2019), pioneering actress starred in “Julia”

by Linnea Crowther

Diahann Carroll was the groundbreaking actress and singer whose 1968 TV show “Julia” was the first to portray a Black woman with a professional career. After an early break with a role in the all-Black cast of the 1954 hit musical “Carmen Jones,” Carroll starred as Clara in the 1959 film adaptation of “Porgy and Bess” and appeared on Broadway. While she was performing in “House of Flowers,” her Broadway debut, she caught the eye of iconic composer Richard Rodgers, who became determined to see her cast in one of his shows. In the end, he wrote “No Strings” expressly for Carroll, and her portrayal of fashion model Barbara Woodruff won her the 1962 Tony Award for best actress—she was the first Black woman to take home that honor. Her fame grew as she played the title role in TV’s “Julia,” and in 1974, she was Oscar-nominated for her star turn in the movie “Claudine.” Carroll joined the cast of nighttime soap opera “Dynasty” in 1984, playing the diva Dominique Deveraux. In later years, she had a recurring role on TV in “A Different World,” appeared in movies including “The Five Heartbeats” and “Eve’s Bayou,” and provided the voice of Queen La in the animated TV series “The Legend of Tarzan.”

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Died: October 4, 2019 (Who else died on October 4?)


Details of death: Died at home in West Hollywood, California of complications of breast cancer at the age of 84.

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Breaking down barriers: Fifty-one years ago, Carroll’s title character on “Julia” was a much-needed fresh face in the sitcom world. Julia Baker was a widowed single mom and a nurse. It was her professional career that was so groundbreaking: never before had a television show starred a Black woman with a job other than the stereotypical maids and mammies. But at the same time that “Julia” broke new ground for African Americans in the media, it was criticized for offering a whitewashed, too-rosy version of the Black experience. Julia’s life was pleasant and relatively easy, unlike the real lives of many Black people in 1960s America. Carroll herself told TV Guide in a 1968 interview, “At the moment, we’re presenting the White Negro. And he has very little Negro-ness.” But “Julia” laid the groundwork for other shows to present Black characters in all walks of life without tired racial stereotypes, and perhaps the best way to do that was in its nonthreatening way.

Notable quote: “Deep down, I never saw ‘Julia’ as a documentary, and I didn’t see why, to be worthwhile, it had to be about a Black woman wearing an Afro and dashiki and living in the ghetto. It was a sitcom. And it was a successful one. I knew why it was pulling in ratings, too. It made the White majority feel comfortable with a Black lead character who was not offensive to them in any way. And frankly, it was a role I was glad to portray.” —From Carroll’s 2009 autobiography, “The Legs Are the Last to Go”

What people said about her: “Diahann Carroll 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. Extraordinary life. Thank you, Ms. Carroll.” —Director Ava DuVernay

“This one cuts deeply. My mom & Ms. Diahann were friends since they were 14. She was a pioneer on so many levels. She made me believe I could be on television! I loved & cherished and idolized her like a daughter. RIP Diahann Carroll thank you for the gift of your life” —Actress Holly Robinson Peete

“To Diahann Carroll, a Black woman who settled for nothing less than excellence, the complete recognition of her worth and the full valuation of her voice, may we all say ‘thank you, and good night, Queen.’” —MSNBC correspondent Joy Reid

“Diahann Carroll you taught us so much. We are stronger, more beautiful and risk takers because of you. We will forever sing your praises and speak your name.” —Choreographer and actress Debbie Allen

“I once met the legendary Diahann Carroll at a luncheon in Toronto. I told her that when she starred in Julia, people used to say my mother looked like her. Without blinking an eye, she said ‘Was she very beautiful?’ Ms. Carroll was a Goddess.” —Actress Dana Delaney

Full obituary: The New York Times

Related lives:

  • Lena Horne (1917–2010), legendary actress, singer, and civil rights activist
  • Dorothy Dandridge (1922–1965), groundbreaking star of “Carmen Jones”
  • Eartha Kitt (1927–2008), singer and actress known for her distinctive voice

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