Diahann Carroll, TV’s history-making star of NBC’s 1960s sitcom Julia and Broadway’s first black Tony Award-winner in a leading role for the 1962 musical No Strings, died today of cancer. The Dynasty star was 84.
“My personal world has taken a downward spiral,” said singer and friend Dionne Warwick in a statement. “Losing my dear friend and Mentor comes as a true hurt to my heart!! I know I’ll miss her as I’m certain all that knew her will. Rest In Peace my dear friend.”
Carroll’s death was announced by her daughter, Suzanne Kay.
Already a popular stage and nightclub performer when she signed on to star in Julia, Carroll is credited with being the first African-American actress to lead a primetime series in a non-stereotypical role, and the first overall since Beulah, the 1950s sitcom about a maid.
Julia became an immediate hit when it launched in September 1968, finishing at No. 7 among all primetime programs that season, and won Carroll a 1968 Best Actress/TV Golden Globe Award. The series was canceled after the 1971 season. Carroll would go on to earn three additional primetime Emmy nominations for roles in Naked City (1963), A Different World (1989) and Grey’s Anatomy (2008). She was nominated for a Daytime Emmy in 1999 for the children’s special The Sweetest Gift.
Born in The Bronx and becoming an Ebony model at 15 and, several years later, a winning singer on TV’s Chance of a Lifetime talent contest, Carroll soon became a popular nightclub attraction before staking her Hollywood claim with 1954’s Carmen Jones, 1959’s Porgy and Bess, and, in 1961, co-starring with Sidney Poitier in Martin Ritt’s Paris Blues.
By that point, she’d already appeared on Broadway, starring in ’54’s Harold Arlen-Truman Capote musical House of Flowers.
Various episodic TV appearances and a role in the 1967 Otto Preminger star-packed feature Hurry Sundown followed, but her big, star-making breakthrough came with Julia, the half-hour comedy that showcased Carroll as a nurse and Vietnam War widow raising her young son (Marc Copage) on her own. The series co-starred Lloyd Nolan as her cranky but compassionate doctor boss.
In 1974, Carroll starred in the feature film Claudine, playing the title character – a Harlem mother of six struggling to support her family and falling in love with a garbage collector played by James Earl Jones (the movie introduced a young Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, who found wider fame the following year in TV’s Welcome Back, Kotter). Carroll was Oscar-nominated for her performance.
Various TV appearances followed (Roots: The Next Generations, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, even the destined-for-cult-classic-status The Star Wars Holiday Special in 1978), but Carroll’s next pioneering move came with her portrayal of Dominique Deveraux, first in 1984 on Dynasty and, later, crossing over to the show’s spin-off The Colbys. Her casting as a mixed-race diva – Dominique was the half-sister of series star John Forsythe’s Blake Carrington – was a breakthrough for the primetime soaps of the day, and also reunited her with her real-life high school classmate Billy Dee Williams.
Carroll stayed active well into the new century, with roles in The Five Heartbeats, Lonesome Dove: The Series, Grey’s Anatomy, White Collar, the Lifetime movies At Risk and The Front, among others.
Though perhaps most widely known for her TV roles – she was a 2011 inductee in the Television Hall of Fame – Carroll was a longstanding and celebrated stage actress, following up House of Flowers and No Strings with a 1982 stint in Broadway’s Agnes of God and 1999’s Off Broadway landmark feminist production The Vagina Monologues. She again defied expectations in 1995 by starring as Norma Desmond in the Toronto production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Sunset Boulevard.
Carroll was married four times, most recently from 1987 to 1996 to singer Vic Damone, and the actress was involved in headline-making romances with actor Sidney Poitier and British journalist/talk show host David Frost.
First diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997, Carroll is survived by her daughter, the journalist Suzanne Kay, and two grandchildren.