Diahann Carroll, Bronx-born actress, singer, fashion model and advocate for numerous causes including breast cancer — an illness she knew all too personally — died Oct. 4 in her West Hollywood home at the age of 84. She had survived breast cancer in the 1990s and became a public spokeswoman for early screening and treatment but could not overcome complications which arose after the recent return of the disease.
Carroll’s long list of credits on television, stage and film remain impressive for any actress today but even more so given the challenges she faced during the height of her career as a Black woman.
Known for her beauty, elegance and glamour, she began her professional life as a vocalist, singing in nightclubs, on recordings and on Broadway where she won the 1962 Tony Award for best actress — the first for a Black woman — in the musical “No Strings.” She garnered a second nomination for Best Actress for her role in “Claudine” in 1974. Ironically, she assumed the role after Diana Sands, for whom the part had been written, became too ill from cancer and recommended her friend Carroll to take on the role.
Carroll’s recurring roles on television series including “Grey’s Anatomy” and “A Different World” have endeared her to today’s younger audiences, as well as her standout interpretation of the irascible Dominique Devereaux, Blake Carrington’s half-sister, in the nighttime soap opera “Dynasty.” She also captured our hearts as Eleanor Potter, the beautiful, protective wife of music manager Jimmy Potter in the unforgettable 1991 film, “The Five Heartbeats.”
But she will forever be remembered — praised by some and criticized by others — for her groundbreaking role as Julia in the NBC weekly situation comedy also titled “Julia” which aired from 1968 to 1971. Carroll starred as a widowed nurse whose husband had been killed in Vietnam, leaving her with a young male child to raise alone. Both Blacks and whites enthusiastically watched the show which reached No. 7 in the Nielsen ratings in its first season.
Carroll would take home a Golden Globe Award and receive an Emmy nomination for her role as Julia Baker. But more significant remains her achievement as the first African-American woman starring in a role as a professional rather than in the stereotypical servile roles for which Black women had long been relegated.
Discrimination had been her greatest challenge in the early part of her career before “Julia.” Still, even with her historic achievement, many argued, Blacks in particular, that the role painted a picture far too unrealistic and rosy for the reality that the majority of Blacks faced in 1968 America. Others criticized the role because she dressed so elegantly, lived in a beautiful apartment and seemed so confident — even “saintly” — despite the challenges she faced as the single, working parent of a young Black boy.
Nonetheless, she paved the way for Black actresses today in ways that can only be described as profound. She will forever be our beloved “Julia.”