Diahann Carroll, the elegant star of stage and screen who changed the course of television history as the first African American woman to shatter stereotypes, in 1968's ground-breaking sitcom "Julia," and to win a lead actress Tony Award, has died. She was 84.
The Oscar-nominated actress and breast cancer survivor, who also starred in "Dynasty" and "White Collar," died of cancer, her daughter Suzanne Kay said Friday.
The leggy beauty burst on the scene among the first black actresses to star in studio films. Assisted by her breathy, deep voice, the established recording artist debuted on the big screen in 1954's Oscar-nominated adaptation of "Carmen Jones," a retelling of the Bizet opera with an all-black cast alongside Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte and Pearl Bailey. In 1959, she headlined the musical "Porgy and Bess" with Dandridge, Sidney Poitier and Sammy Davis Jr.
The dynamic entertainer, whose TV credits also include "A Different World" and "Grey's Anatomy," sang in nightclubs and on the Broadway stage, headlined in Las Vegas with her fourth husband, Vic Damone, and notched Emmy, Grammy and Golden Globe nominations. Carroll was nominated for a lead-actress Oscar for her turn as a welfare mom in the 1974 comedy "Claudine" and earned a Tony Award in 1962 for Richard Rodgers' "No Strings."
In the late 1960s, Carroll was cast in "Julia," the enormously successful NBC sitcom that featured her as a war-widowed nurse raising a son. The pioneering role was a departure from predecessors that typically tapped black women to play domestic workers and was credited with shattering stereotypes ahead of "The Cosby Show," which didn't premiere until 1984.
"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 the Aaron Spelling hit series "Dynasty," Carroll embodied another atypical black woman on television: the deliciously catty Dominique Deveraux, Blake Carrington's long-lost, illegitimate half-sister, whom she emphatically dubbed the "first black bitch on prime-time television."
"Very often it has been made light of. I think it is important that we allow actors who represent the Third World to portray roles that are not necessarily sympathetic," she told the Washington Post in 1985. "And the other end of the spectrum that we are offered very often is we are so sympathetic, so wonderful, so good and so marvelous that we are totally unbelievable. Somewhere in the middle, I thought it would be interesting to try to create a new character. There are some things about Dominique that are perfectly likable, there are other things that are completely self-centered. And I think she will remain that way."
Perhaps taking a page out of Deveraux's handbook, Carroll persevered in Hollywood with her long-cultivated combination of class and sass, turning heads with her extravagant taste in clothing and lavish lifestyle.
"Dominique brought a shot in the arm when 'Dynasty' needed it. I had a hell of a good time when I was there," she told TV Guide.
Born Carol Diahann Johnson in 1935 in the Bronx, she moved to Harlem with her parents at a young age. With their support, she enrolled in dance, singing and modeling classes and attended Music and Art High School with Billy Dee Williams, who would later costar with her in "Dynasty," "Lonesome Dove: The Series" and the widely panned "Star Wars Christmas Special." By 15, the leggy teen was modeling for Ebony, and by 18 she got her big singing break after winning the televised talent show "Chance of a Lifetime" in 1954. She received a cash prize in addition to being booked at the famed Latin Quarter nightclub in New York City.
Later that year, she hit the big screen as a bit player in Otto Preminger's adaptation of "Carmen Jones" with Dandridge and Belafonte and made her Broadway debut in "House of Flowers."
"I loved every moment of it," she told The Times of her early break. "I just assumed everyone's career went through the same machinations. It wasn't until much later that I realized how fortunate I had been."
The stage musical, a collaboration of Truman Capote and Harold Arlen, flopped despite the impressive talent roster that included Pearl Bailey and Alvin Ailey in the cast and Peter Brook directing. Hollywood wasn't that friendly to Carroll either when she auditioned in the 1950s - L.A. was less integrated than New York.
"We have to remember we didn't see movies or television that involved black people. That didn't make me comfortable," she said, noting that producers "treated me like a novelty, not like I am an actress. You have to go away from those people. You must stay within your range."
While working on "House of Flowers," Carroll fell for casting director Monte Kay, with whom she had daughter Suzanne. She was only a teenager and they "had a lot of growing up to do," she said, but was grateful for the union because it produced her daughter.
It only took a few days into working on 1959's "Porgy and Bess" for Poitier to take notice of his beautiful costar, whose nine-year love affair with him would result in the demise of his first marriage, to model Juanita Harvey.
"She had fantastic cheekbones, perfect teeth and dark, mysterious eyes," Poitier said of Carroll in People magazine. "She was confident, inviting, sensuous - and she moved with a rhythm that absolutely tantalized me. I invited her to dinner, telling her that since we were both married we would talk about our absent loved ones. And we did. I acted very, very gentlemanly for weeks, but halfway through the picture we fell in love. As I got to know her, I realized she was one of the brightest women I had ever known."
The two were paired again for 1961's romantic musical "Paris Blues," but it took Poitier six years to end his marriage, which he stayed in for the sake of his four children. After his divorce, he requested that he and Carroll live together for six months so he "wouldn't be jumping from one marriage straight into another. But she wouldn't do it. It was then that our relationship started to unravel."
Carroll, a self-described "terrible romantic, just ridiculously so," continued to make headlines with her love life.
She was married briefly to a Las Vegas businessman, but dismissed that episode as "a silly marriage and a silly divorce." She was briefly engaged to English journalist David Frost, but they never married. Her third husband, Robert A. DeLeon, was much younger than she was, but she said he was "a complex, brilliant young man." Together, the two launched their SuMo production company which yielded her well-received CBS variety series, "The Diahann Carroll Show," in 1976. DeLeon died a year later.
In 1962, she starred in the Broadway musical "No Strings," Richard Rodgers' now-forgotten stab at writing lyrics as well as music after the 1960 death of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. The role is said to have been written specifically for her and told the story of a model living in Paris who gets involved in an interracial romance with an American writer. She won a 1962 Tony Award for best actress in a musical for the role and it opened the door for her TV career. But her glamorous image - and characters - nearly impeded her casting in "Julia" because she didn't appear relatable for the housewife audience the show was after.
"(Creator) Hal Kanter knew all about my jet-set lifestyle when NBC told him he was to meet with me. I knew about his hesitancy, so for our first meeting, I dressed carefully - to look modest, and though it was a Givenchy, the line was so simple, I knew it would work - and walked into the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel," Carroll wrote in her book. "I was told later that he didn't recognize me. 'That's the look I want for this character,' he told a colleague. 'A well-dressed house wife just like that woman.' Then I came over to the table and he discovered that 'that woman' was me."
Carroll relocated from New York to California with her daughter for "Julia" and garnered a Golden Globe for female TV star and a nomination for best TV show, among other nods. She also earned a lead actress in a comedy Emmy nomination in 1969. Because the show was sponsored by toymaker Mattel, she served as the model for one of the first black Barbie dolls and found her likeness plastered on a variety of merchandise, including lunch boxes and coloring books.
"For the most part, looking back, realizing what we were trying to do at that time, the parameters that we were given, I feel proud of it. It made a difference. It was the beginning of a new kind of approach," she said. "We were all breaking down these walls that could never be and it was very exciting to be a part of that."
Though "Julia" performed, it aired amid the Vietnam protests, assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and riots across the country. It was criticized for being trite, unrealistic and a far cry from the bitter realities plaguing African Americans.
Among the grievances: There was no black male or father figure for Julia's son to relate to. She and her costars were even scrutinized for wearing fancy clothes and living in an unaffordable apartment on the show. Carroll often found herself having to defend the show, though she usually directed it to the creative powers, and was hospitalized twice because of stress. After three seasons, Carroll declined to renew her contract.
"You must stop believing that the only thing that is valid for blacks on television is a documentary. We're doing a comedy. Let us do a comedy. Slowly it permeated, the range of everything ... single women's issues began to be addressed," she said. "We were of the opinion that what we were doing was important and we never left that point of view. Even though some of the criticism was valid, that was not what we were doing."
She took a grittier turn in the titular role of 1974's "Claudine," which earned Carroll her one and only Oscar nomination as a mother struggling to raise her six children on welfare who falls for a garbage collector, played by James Earl Jones.
She followed up that performance by filling in for Elizabeth Ashley in the well-received 1983 play "Agnes of God," portraying a psychiatrist.
Then came the smash hit "Dynasty," which she appeared on from 1984 until to 1987. She cut out before the show went off the air in 1989 and landed a guest stint on Cosby's NBC sitcom "A Different World," for which she got an Emmy nomination.
When "Monster's Ball" star Halle Berry became the first black actress to win an Oscar in the lead actress category in 2002, Carroll was among the African American actresses Berry dedicated her award to, saying: "This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It's for the women that stand beside me: Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. And it's for every nameless faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened."
The following year, Berry presented Carroll with the groundbreaking-role tribute during the TV Land Awards.
She racked up more TV credits in the early 2000s, appearing in "Whoopi," "Grey's Anatomy" and "Diary of a Single Mom" before landing a recurring role on USA's "White Collar" as a wealthy widow. The actress declined to partake in the 2006 "Dynasty" reunion because she was "appalled" by the monetary compensation.
"I didn't see the reason for a 'Dynasty' reunion at this point," she told TV Guide. "I'd like for people to remember us as we were. None of us are as we were. We have aged. I thought that it would be lovely, if we were going to come back, for everyone to be excited about it. But you have to be excited financially, as well as emotionally. I was not excited financially."
Carroll didn't even watch the special, which ended up with pretty abysmal ratings despite the popularity of the original show, which starred her old pal Joan Collins and John Forsythe.
"There's such a thing as accepting the fact that something has had its day. Let it go with dignity. Dynasty was a romp in the first place. If we can't add to the fun and the quality of the romp, leave it alone."
In 2008, Carroll showcased her illustrious legs on the cover of her memoir, "The Legs Are the Last to Go: Aging, Acting, Marrying and Other Things I Learned the Hard Way."
"I'm going to admit I'm very proud of them," she said in an NPR interview. "They are holding up amazingly well."
Carroll's musical stage credits also include a long run in the mid-1990s as Norma Desmond in the Toronto production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical version of "Sunset Boulevard." In 2010, she starred in an autobiographical musical one-nighter at the Annenberg Theatre in Palm Springs, "Diahann Carroll: The Lady, The Music, The Legend," which PBS taped for subsequent airing that fall.
Late in life, Carroll suffered throat issues that caused her to stop singing.
In 2013, she was tapped to return to Broadway opposite Denzel Washington in Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun," but she dropped out of the production during rehearsals. She was replaced by LaTanya Richardson Jackson.
That same year, she revived her comedic chops starring in Craig Robinson's "Peeples" with Kerry Washington, playing well-to-do matriarch Nana Peeples.
"I don't think I have been in a room on a project with all of these incredible black actors," said Carroll. "Black actresses don't find good comedy. Some of it is immature and too silly."
Carroll is survived by her daughter, who is a journalist and producer, and two grandchildren.
Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com