Diahann Carroll, 1935–2019
The actress who broke TV’s color barrier
When Julia debuted on NBC in 1968, Americans had never seen anything on TV like Diahann Carroll’s lead character. For the first time, a black actress was playing something other than a servant in a sitcom. Carroll’s Julia Baker was a widowed nurse and mother to a young son. She had an immaculate wardrobe, glamorous apartment, and the temperament of a saint. The show was praised for shattering stereotypes. But it was also criticized for its upbeat and sanitized depiction of black life amid the racial unrest of the late 1960s, debuting just months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Carroll acknowledged the show often pulled its punches on race but always defended it for pushing boundaries. “You must stop believing that the only thing that is valid for blacks on television is a documentary,” she said. “We’re doing a comedy. Let us do a comedy.”
Carol Diann Johnson was born in New York City to a nurse mother and subway conductor father, said The New York Times. A talented singer, Carroll began performing with a Harlem church choir at age 6 and started modeling for Ebony magazine as a teenager. She won a TV talent contest three weeks in a row in 1954 under the name Diahann Carroll. “Her prize was $1,000 a week, plus an engagement at the Latin Quarter, the Manhattan nightclub.” Later that year, “she hit the big screen as a bit player” in Otto Preminger’s all-black adaptation of the opera Carmen, said the Los Angeles Times. She also made her Broadway debut in House of Flowers, catching the eye of composer Richard Rodgers. He wrote the 1962 musical No Strings—about a fashion model who has an interracial romance—expressly for Carroll. It won her a Tony for best actress in a musical, a first for a black woman.
“NBC executives were wary about putting Julia on the network,” said the Associated Press. But Carroll’s performance won over black and white viewers, and the show surged to No. 7 in the Nielsen ratings during its first season. Despite her successful stage and film career, Carroll “encountered a stark reminder of her groundbreaking status” in her early days at NBC, said The Washington Post. When she arrived at the network, the actress discovered that the makeup department didn’t have anything to match her complexion. “The studio,” she said, “had only dealt with the little American girls or European girls.”
Carroll’s later roles looked nothing like Julia, said The Guardian (U.K.). She earned an Oscar nomination for her role in the 1974 romantic comedy Claudine, in which she played a Harlem widow with six children who falls in love with a garbage collector. However, it was her role as the sleek, scheming Dominique Deveraux on the prime-time soap opera Dynasty “that brought her greatest fame.” Rich, glamorous, and gleefully catty, Carroll’s character was, in her words, “the first black bitch on television.” In the mid-2000s, Carroll had a recurring role on another soap, Grey’s Anatomy. But she declined to return for a Dynasty reunion in 2006. “There’s such a thing as accepting the fact that something has had its day,” she said. “Let it go with dignity.” ■