Things happen when you are away and in a country with bad WIFI. I was in Rome when the news broke of the passing of Diahann Carroll. While Rome is hardly a third world city, you might be surprised how unsustainable a hotel internet connection might be. All of this is just to say that I’m sorry to be getting to this appreciation eight days after Ms. Carroll left us.
While many may best remember her as a personality and talk show raconteur, it must be said she was a wondrous, talented trailblazer. She excelled on stage as an actor and singer while finding success on screens both large and small. Her career began in 1954 with a role in the groundbreaking all-black musical, Carmen Jones. She also appeared in an episode of The Red Skelton Show.
Over the next five years, she regularly guested on television variety shows — most notably The Jack Paar Show and The Ed Sullivan Show. In 1959 she played Clara across from Dorothy Dandridge, and Sidney Poitier — who would become her offscreen partner for the next decade (just imagine the rubbernecking that must have gone on when they entered a room together). She and Poitier would make the light — but indescribably gorgeous — Paris Blues two years later with another power couple, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
The next year, Carroll won a Tony for Best Actress in the Richard Rodgers musical No Strings, becoming the first black woman to do so. While No Strings largely avoided issues of race — in fact, Carroll’s role makes no allusions to it at all — it was highly notable that her co-lead and on-stage love interest was the very white, Richard Kiley. The lack of racial references in the play stoked some controversy at the time, but Rodgers felt just by casting Carroll they had made a statement. Even if the play took the safe route by avoiding the topic, it’s hard to entirely disagree with Rodgers.
Carroll’s next great triumph would come six years later on television playing the title role of a widowed nurse on NBC’s Julia. Much like No Strings, Julia was criticized for being apolitical, and the show’s suburban setting was deemed out of touch by many an activist at the time. However, it was also one of the first programs to show a character of color — particularly a black person — as something other than a servant. As compromised as it may have been, a show depicting a professional black woman (as the lead character no less) making her own way through life without a dependence on white people was positively groundbreaking. The show finished in the top ten of the Nielsen Ratings in its first year. During its three-year run, Carroll would be nominated for an Emmy as best actress (the first black woman in the category to do so) and win a Golden Globe.
Carroll’s career slowed after Julia’s cancellation in 1971, but three years later, she would find her greatest big screen role as the title character in Claudine, across from James Earl Jones. Unlike No Strings and Julia, Claudine was steeped in the struggles of the African American community. As a house-cleaner and mother of six on welfare, Claudine must claim to not only be single, but not even to be dating to max out the benefits she so desperately needs to keep her family afloat. Her relationship with Rupert (played by Jones), a sanitation employee, puts her at great risk to the prying eyes of her social worker. Claudine may feel a bit dated now, but there’s great integrity in it, and Carroll is fabulous. So good that she became just the fourth black woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for best actress (it would be another eleven years before Whoopi Goldberg received a nod for The Color Purple).
Carroll returned to television after Claudine (it would be 17 years before she made her next film, The Five Heartbeats), mostly in TV movies and in her own short-lived variety show, the Diahann Carroll Show. It wouldn’t be until 1984 that Carroll would again encounter a significant success on television. This time it was as the spectacularly named Dominique Deveraux on ABC’s nighttime soap, Dynasty. While not exactly high art, Carroll’s role as a foil to Joan Collins’ Alexis was absolutely iconic. For four seasons (1984-87), Carroll gave as good as she got. Which if you think about it, was something the viewing world had not likely seen much of, an unapologetic black woman of means being ruthless and hard-nosed.
After leaving Dynasty, Carroll’s work became more sporadic — consisting of small parts in movies and guest spots on television. Some of those were quite memorable though. She was quite good in Kasi Lemmons’ criminally underseen Eve’s Bayou from 1997 and earned an Emmy nomination for Guest Actress playing the mother of Dr. Preston Burke on Grey’s Anatomy in 2008.
I wonder what Carroll’s career might have looked like had she been born twenty years later and been afforded more of the opportunities that actors of color have gained since her heyday. She was an extraordinary talent. Gifted at comedy, drama, and singing, she could do just about anything. It’s hard not to wish we could have seen more of it. Then again, Carroll may not have enjoyed the path that those who followed her do now because she was too busy paving it.
Diahann Carroll Died on October 4. She was 84 years old.