Diahann Carroll, Tony Winner, First Black Woman to Star in Own TV Series, Dies at 84

Diahann Carroll arrives for the Academy Awards in Los Angeles, Calif. onDiahann Carroll, Los Angeles, USA
CREDIT: ED WIDDIS/AP/SHUTTERSTOCK

Singer and Tony-winning, Oscar-nominated actress Diahann Carroll, the first African American woman to star in her own TV series, has died at at her home in Los Angeles after a long bout with cancer. She was 84. Her daughter, Suzanne Kay, confirmed the news. Carroll is perhaps best remembered by younger audiences for her role as the conniving Dominique Deveraux on the nighttime soap “Dynasty” in the mid-’80s. But her first major television assignment was starring as the middle-class single mother Julia in a 1968 sitcom that was praised for featuring an African American in the title role as much as it was criticized for ignoring the civil rights struggle. The series, which ran for three years, was a trailblazer in leading to greater visibility for African American characters on series television.

The actress characterized by svelte cosmopolitan sophistication had come to television via the musical theater. In the early 1960s she won a Tony as the star of Richard Rodgers’ musical “No Strings”; the role had been written especially for her. Carroll had previously been featured in supporting roles in such films as “Carmen Jones” and “Porgy and Bess.” She was only the fourth black actress to be nominated for the best actress Oscar, for the 1974 romantic drama “Claudine.”

Despite her great beauty and undeniable talents as a performer, Carroll sometimes struggled to find roles. When once asked why she did little film work after “Claudine,” she replied incredulously, “Have you seen another film script with a starring role with the character of Claudine? I haven’t.” She told another reporter, “I’m sometimes amazed at how few people realize what it takes for a black woman to survive in this business.”

Carroll made her Broadway debut at age 19 in the Harold Arlen musical “House of Flowers,” and though it was short-lived, Carroll’s notices brought her substantial attention and led to her first movie role in “Carmen Jones.” It would be followed by a role in the 1959 film version of “Porgy and Bess.” Carroll made her TV debut on “The Red Skelton Show” and appeared on other variety programs fronted by Steve Allen, Garry Moore, Jack Paar and Danny Kaye, as well as on “The Ed Sulivan Show.” She acted in TV dramas including “Peter Gunn” and “Naked City.”

Her early recordings include “Porgy and Bess” with the Andre Previn Trio, “Diahann Carroll Sings Harold Arlen,” “Best Beat Forward” and “Showstopper.” Later recordings include her 1978 tribute to Ethel Waters and 1997’s “The Time of My Life.”

Her dramatic film debut came in 1960 in “Paris Blues,” opposite Sidney Poitier, followed by a small role in the French drama “Goodbye Again.”

After having seen her in “House of Flowers,” songwriter Richard Rodgers promised he would one day write a vehicle for Carroll. That turned out to be “No Strings,” the 1962 musical about an interracial romance between a writer and a fashion model.