Pioneering actress Diahann Carroll dead at 84

Diahann Carroll

Diahann Carroll, who was both the first black woman to have her own television show not playing a stereotypical role and the first black woman to win a Tony for Best Actress, died on Friday. She was 84 years old.

Carroll’s daughter, Susan Kay, confirmed to the Associated Press that her mother died in Los Angeles of cancer. Carroll battled breast cancer earlier in her life and subsequently became an outspoken activist for the cause.

Carroll was born Carol Diahann Johnson in the Bronx, New York, on July 17, 1935. She quickly took to music by singing in church. At 10, she received the Metropolitan Opera scholarship at LaGuardia High School of Music and Art. At 16, she changed her name for a talent scout audition.

Her first film role came as part of the all-black cast of “Carmen Jones” in 1954. She played Myrt, a chorus member and supporting star to Dorothy Dandridge. In 1962, she broke a racial barrier when she became the first black woman to win a Tony Award for lead actress in a musical for her work in the production of “No Strings.”

In 1968, she made history again when she became the first black woman to land her own television sitcom where the character wasn’t a domestic worker. Carroll starred in “Julia” as a nurse and widow struggling to make ends meet. The role earned her a Golden Globe for “Best Newcomer” and an Emmy nomination. The show ended after two seasons.

Then in 1974, Carroll starred in the film “Claudine” opposite James Earl Jones. It followed a Harlem mother of six, played by Carroll, and earned the actors Golden Globe nominations and Carroll an Academy Award nod.

In the 1980s, Carroll’s star power hit new levels as “the first black bitch on television” as Dominique Deveraux in the soap opera “Dynasty.” Deveraux, of course, was the nemesis of Joan Collins’ character, Alexis Carrington Colby, for 74 episodes. Amid the big hair, over-the-top fashion and catfights, fans adored Deveraux and her sharp tongue. Years later, she would earn a whole new audience as Whitley Gilbert’s fussy and rich mother, Marion Gilbert, on the wildly popular college show “A Different World.”

But while Carroll’s career brought her numerous accolades and applause, her private life was rocky and fraught with heartbreak. She wed record producer Monte Kay in 1956 and welcomed daughter Suzanne Kay in 1960. That marriage would come to a fiery end due to her affair with actor Sidney Poitier. In her memoir, “The Legs Are the Last to Go,” Carroll claims Poitier convinced her to divorce Kay while he would end things with his wife. He never held up his end of the bargain and ultimately strung her along.

She married and divorced her second husband, Las Vegas boutique owner Fred Glusman, in 1973. Two years later, she gave love another try when she tied the knot with writer Robert DeLeon, who died in 1977 in a car crash. Carroll’s fourth and final husband, singer Vic Damone, came in 1987. The couple called it quits in 1996.

“I’ve spent a lot of time giving the men involved in some of these relationships a very bad reputation,” Carroll boldly said in her own “Oprah’s Master Class” episodein 2013. “I’m not saying I ever said anything that wasn’t true. It was all true. Except that the reason this one human being kept choosing selection poor — not able to evaluate whether this should be a friendship or this should be a marriage. I wanted to be married. So when the opportunity to do so was there, I did it.”

After breaking with her fourth husband, Carroll began to look inward. “I had not lived alone. Quite frankly I didn’t know how to do that.”

She then moved back to Los Angeles to start anew — this time alone. “I said I will learn about me. Not the role I play,” she explained. “It’s difficult to learn to live alone. It’s difficult because I’m difficult. I’m not easy to live with.” She said she was an old lady before she understood that no one else could truly make her happy but her.

While her love life wasn’t always picture-perfect, neither was her health. Carroll was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997.

“What happened? You don’t believe it. First, it doesn’t even faze you. You just [say], ‘Thank you for the information, Doctor, and we’ll speak about this tomorrow.’ Because that’s the way I handle things,” Carroll said of surviving breast cancer on “Master Class.”

Then came a barrage of feelings — mostly concerns that others would find out. “The vanity was I didn’t want anyone to know,” she said. “I didn’t want my mother to know. I didn’t want my daughter to know. I just didn’t know what to do with the feelings that were connected with having cancer.”

She underwent 12 weeks of radiation and over time became a breast cancer activist.

Looking back at her life, Carroll recalled many highlights, once telling Clutch, “I’ve had a wonderful ride. I’m very pleased with most of the things in my life and knowing that I gave everything that I had at the time … is what makes me comfortable.”

“I’m not tormented by the ‘I should have done this or I should have done that,’” she said of her life’s ultimate goal. “At the end of the day, I want to feel like I gave my best to whatever I did.”

New York Post
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