NEW YORK (Reuters) – Diahann Carroll, a versatile singer and stage actress who quietly blazed a trail for black women on American television in the late 1960s by playing a widowed nurse and single mother in “Julia,” died on Friday at age 84, her manager said.
Carroll, whose career also was punctuated by a pioneering Tony Award and an Oscar nomination, had been suffering from cancer and died in her sleep at home in Los Angeles with her daughter by her side, her manager, Brian Panella, said by phone.
“She had been fighting it for quite some time, and did not want the world to know,” said Panella, who had managed her career for 20 years.
With a handful of movie roles and an award-winning Broadway career already under her belt, Carroll landed the title role in the 1968 situation comedy “Julia.” She played Julia Baker, a nurse struggling to raise a young son by herself after her husband was killed in the Vietnam War.
The show, which ran for three seasons on NBC and earned Carroll a Golden Globe Award and Emmy nomination, was a breakthrough for African-American women who were only beginning to make inroads on the small screen at the time.
Actress Nichelle Nichols first appeared two years earlier on “Star Trek” in the supporting role of communications officer Lieutenant Uhura. But “Julia” was the first prime-time network series to star a black woman playing a professional character, as opposed to a maid or domestic worker, as was the case in the 1950s sitcom “Beulah.”
“She never wanted to praise herself for anything in that regard,” Panella said. “It was more that she felt that she was a part of the expansion of the African-American community in the arts, not the sole creator of that movement.”
Carroll’s close friend and fellow vocalist from that era, Dionne Warwick, reacted with grief, saying, “My personal world has taken a downward spiral. Losing my dear friend and mentor comes as a true hurt to my heart.”
ANOTHER SINGLE-MOM ROLE
Carroll’s success as “Julia” set her up for another title role in the 1974 movie, “Claudine,” for which she received an Academy Award nomination as best actress. Playing opposite James Earl Jones, she reprised her single-mother persona, this time living in Harlem with six children and on public relief.
She went on to play numerous screen roles, mostly in television shows and made-for-TV movies, until just a few years ago. Besides “Julia,” she is perhaps best remembered by TV audiences for her role as Dominique Deveraux, a glamorous diva on the 1980s hit prime-time soap opera “Dynasty.”
Carol Diann Johnson was born in the Bronx borough of New York City on July 17, 1935, daughter of a subway conductor, and began singing with her Harlem church choir at age 6, according to IMDB.com.
Modeling for Ebony magazine by the time she was 15, she adopted the more exotic-sounding Diahann Carroll as a teenager auditioning for singing gigs, it said.
In 1954, she landed her first singing role on Broadway in the musical “House of Flowers,” before going on to play Clara in the Otto Preminger’s big-screen version of “Porgy and Bess in 1959. She also had auditioned for the lead in Preminger’s 1954 film adaptation of “Carmen Jones” but ended up cast in the supporting role of Myrt instead.
Her performance as a fashion model in the 1962 Broadway musical interracial love story “No Strings” won her a Tony Award as best actress, a first for an African-American performer.
Carroll, who had been married four times, also sang in nightclubs and recorded several record albums from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s.
“She was a tremendous talent and just a very unique human being,” said Panella. “I was blessed to have her as my client for all of that time.”
Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty, David Gregorio and Daniel Wallis