NEW YORK (CBSLA/AP) — Diahann Carroll, the Oscar-nominated actress and singer who won critical acclaim as the first black woman to star in a non-servant role in a TV series as “Julia,” has died. She was 84.
Carroll’s daughter, Susan Kay, told The Associated Press her mother died Friday in Los Angeles of cancer.
During her long career, Carroll earned a Tony Award for the musical “No Strings” and an Academy Award nomination for “Claudine.”
But she was perhaps best known for her pioneering work on “Julia.” Carroll played Julia Baker, a nurse whose husband had been killed in Vietnam, in the groundbreaking situation comedy that aired from 1968 to 1971.
Although she was not the first black woman to star in her own TV show (Ethel Waters played a maid in the 1950s series “Beulah”), she was the first to star as someone other than a servant.
NBC executives were wary about putting “Julia” on the network during the racial unrest of the 1960s, but it was an immediate hit.
It had its critics, though, including some who said Carroll’s character, a widowed nurse at an aerospace firm who is the mother of a young son, was not a realistic portrayal of a black American woman in the 1960s.
“They said it was a fantasy,” Carroll recalled in 1998. “All of this was untrue. Much about the character of Julia I took from my own life, my family.”
Not shy when it came to confronting racial barriers, Carroll won her Tony portraying a high-fashion American model in Paris who has a love affair with a white American author in the 1959 Richard Rodgers musical “No Strings.” Critic Walter Kerr described her as “a girl with a sweet smile, brilliant dark eyes and a profile regal enough to belong on a coin.”
She appeared often in plays previously considered exclusive territory for white actresses: “Same Time, Next Year,” ”Agnes of God” and “Sunset Boulevard” (as faded star Norma Desmond, the role played by Gloria Swanson in the 1950 film.)
“I like to think that I opened doors for other women, although that wasn’t my original intention,” she said in 2002.
Her film career was sporadic. She began with a secondary role in “Carmen Jones” in 1954 and five years later appeared in “Porgy and Bess,” although her singing voice was dubbed because it wasn’t considered strong enough for the Gershwin opera. Her other films included “Goodbye Again,” ”Hurry Sundown,” ”Paris Blues,” and “The Split.”
The 1974 film “Claudine” provided her most memorable role. She played a hard-bitten single mother of six who finds romance in Harlem with a garbage man played by James Earl Jones. She won the part after the actress who was hired — Diana Sands — developed cancer and had to turn the role down. Sands recommended her friend. Carroll had to convince producers that the woman who played the glam nurse Julia could play a mother of six on welfare.
In the 1980s, she appeared in the long-running prime-time soap opera “Dynasty” for three years.She told series executive producer that she wanted to play the “first black bitch” on TV and Dominique Devereaux lived up to the title. In her first scene, checking into a swanky hotel, Dominique bristles when she finds out they only have a junior suite available and she will require at least two bedrooms. “I don’t sleep in my clothes, nor do I sleep with my clothes,” Dom shot back and a new TV villain was born.
More recently, she had a number of guest shots and small roles in TV series, including playing the mother of Isaiah Washington’s character, Dr. Preston Burke, on “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Off-camera, Carroll was also known for her tabloid-worthy romances. There was a nine-year on-and-off again affair with Sidney Poitier, a nearly 10-year marriage to crooner Vic Damone (she was married three other times, including one man for just several weeks.) She also had a three-year relationship and later engagement to British talk show host David Frost but they never married.
Back to performing, Carroll returned to her roots in nightclubs. In 2006, she made her first club appearance in New York in four decades, singing at Feinstein’s at the Regency. Reviewing a return engagement in 2007, a New York Times critic wrote that she sang “Both Sides Now” with “the reflective tone of a woman who has survived many severe storms and remembers every lightning flash and thunderclap.”
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