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Diahann Carroll, The Original Sophisticated Lady

Without Julia Baker, would TV have ever had Clair Huxtable? Without Dominique Deveraux, could there have been an Olivia Pope?

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Diahann Carroll on blue background in white suit from TV show Dynasty
ABC Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty
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She was our original best actress on Broadway. She was our original poster girl for “Black don’t crack.” She was our original classy Black, professional mom and our original diva that rhymes with rich. Without Julia Baker, would we have ever had Clair Huxtable? Without Dominique Deveraux, could there have been an Olivia Pope?

“Diahann Carroll built HERself from the ground up. And when it’s all said and done, we ALL stole from HER,” tweeted Jennifer Lewis, who, like triple-threat Carroll, is an actress, dancer and singer. The sister had mad talent. But above all, she had style and grace – the epitome of a sophisticated lady. Earlier this month, the native New Yorker passed away in her Los Angeles home following a long battle with cancer. Diahann Carroll was 84.

Born Carol Diahann Johnson in the Bronx and raised in Harlem, she kicked off her career as a model and blossomed into a trailblazing star of television, film and stage. In 1962, Carroll became the first Black woman to win the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of a high-fashion American model in Paris who has a love affair with a white American author in the Richard Rodgers musical No Strings.

Then in her career-defining role, many of us grew up watching the beauty break television barriers in 1968 as the lead character in NBC’s Julia, becoming the first Black actress to star in her own network series in a non-servant or domestic worker role. In the sitcom that ran until 1971, Carroll portrayed Julia Baker, a nurse whose husband had been killed in Vietnam. The show’s popularity spawned ‘Julia’ lunch boxes and Barbie dolls and earned Carroll a Golden Globe for Best Actress – Television Series Musical or Comedy in 1968 and an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series in 1969.

Although the actress said she drew upon experiences from her life and her family for Julia, critics balked, calling her character’s middle-class lifestyle “fantasy,” similar to the backlash The Cosby Show would receive 16 years later.

“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 1974, Carroll was nominated for an Academy Award for the title role in Claudine where, opposite James Earl Jones, she portrayed another single mom, this time a Harlem woman who works part-time as a maid while raising her six children.

Back on the small screen, in 1984 Carroll became a pioneer once more – the first African American lead on a primetime soap. We were collectively glued to the tube to see her slay as the glamorous, globe-trotting Dominique Deveraux, Blake Carrington’s long-lost half-sister who literally battled Joan Collins’ Alexis Carrington Colby for top diva status on the melodramatic mayhem that was Dynasty.

“I want to be wealthy and ruthless … I want to be the first black Bitch on television,” she told People magazine in 1984.

In recent years, a still poised and gracefully aging Carroll had recurring roles on popular TV shows. In 2011 she was inducted into the Television Academy’s Hall of Fame in honor of her television career that included four Primetime Emmy nominations for work in shows that include ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy and NBC’s A Different World.

Married four times, the self-professed “terrible romantic” also had a nine-year affair with Sidney Poitier, whom she appeared with in two films, 1959’s Porgy and Bess and 1961’s Paris Blues.

In 2012, Ms. Carroll spoke to AARP about her 2008 autobiography called The Legs Are the Last to Go: Aging, Acting, Marrying, and Other Things I Learned the Hard Way. When asked, ‘What do you wish you knew in your 30s or 40s that you know now?,’ she responded: “I’ve learned a great deal. However, I’m not sure I would have wanted to know it in my 30s and 40s — trying to find out is what gives you your momentum. I think you have to learn it on your own. Although the first thing in the profession that I know now, that I perhaps didn’t then, is: Listen more than you speak. Listen, and always ask questions.”

Carroll is survived by Suzanne Kay, her daughter with her first husband, casting director Monte Kay, and her two grandchildren.

Actress, dancer and director Debbie Allen, said artists will sing Carroll’s praises “forever.”
“Diahann Carroll you taught us so much,” Allen wrote on Twitter. “We are stronger, more beautiful and risk takers because of you. We will forever sing your praises and speak your name.”