Do you remember sitting in front of the TV watching Julia on TV in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, being mesmerized by Diahann Carroll’s deft, gently humorous portrayal of a single-mom nurse raising her son? Carroll, who recently died after a long bout with cancer, almost didn’t get that role because she was considered too damn glamorous to play the part. But she persevered during the audition process, dimming her beauty best as she could (not easy) to earn the lead. The hit sitcom represented a major advance—a woman of color starring in her own show and, at last, not one in which she had the role of a maid.
While some criticized the show for presenting an unrealistic, idealized version of the Black experience, others countered that most television programming was a polished view of reality. “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 once said in an interview. She earned both an Emmy nomination and a Golden Globe award for her work.
But Julia was only one facet of her amazing career, in which she shared her musical and acting gifts with the world. Carroll started her career as a singer, at first with the Abyssinian Baptist Church choir from age six onward. She performed in nightclubs, on recordings, and on Broadway, beginning at age 19. She took home a Tony Award for her role as a fashion model living in Paris in the musical No Strings in 1962; the role was created for her by Richard Rogers of the famed duo Rogers and Hammerstein. She continued performing onstage for decades, and in the 1990s became the first African American to portray Norma Desmond, the lead role in “Sunset Boulevard.”
On the big screen, she starred in films with Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Michael Caine, and James Earl Jones—with him, she helmed Claudine, about a single mother in Harlem. She received an Oscar nomination in 1974 for this breakthrough performance.
Married four times and a mother to one, journalist Suzanne Kay, Carroll is also remembered for her role on that irresistible 1980’s show Dynasty. No matter where she appeared—stage or screen or her voice emanating from a speaker, she did so with grace, beauty, and unmistakable talent, challenging the racial barriers that were endemic in those times.