Pioneering actress Diahann Carroll, who became the first black woman to star in a non-servant role in a TV series with her titular role on Julia, passed away on October 4, 2019, following a bout with cancer. She was 84 years old.
“Carroll was a consummate entertainer and beloved icon whose career spanned nearly seven decades,” said her daughter, Suzanne Kay, in a statement. “She paved the way for many and never allowed anyone to limit or define her.
Born Carol Diahann Johnson in 1935, Carroll spent her childhood enrolled in dance, singing, and modeling classes. By the time she was 15, Caroll was modeling for Ebony magazine. At 18, after attending New York University to major in sociology, she got her big break when she appeared on the talent show competition Chance of a Lifetime. Her rendition of “Why Was I Born?” took home the $1,000 top prize, and she continued to win the following four weeks. Soon after, she began engagements from Manhattan’s Café Society and Latin Quarter nightclubs.
She made her film debut in the 1954 film Carmen Jones as a supporting character to lead Dorothy Dandridge. Caroll went on to star in the Broadway musical House of Flowers, before playing Clara in the film adaptation of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. She later starred alongside Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman, and Joanne Woodward in the 1961 film Paris Blues. The following year, she made history as the first black woman to win the Tony Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Barbara Woodruff in the musical No Strings. Shortly thereafter, Caroll made history again for her starring role in the 1968 television series Julia.
This series ran on NBC between 1968 and 1971 for a total of 86 episodes. Caroll portrayed nurse Julia Baker who was left a single mother and widow after the death of her husband in the Vietnam War. This groundbreaking role won her the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress In A Television Series in 1968 and a nomination for an Emmy Award the following year. Around this time, Caroll was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for the film Claudine.
In the ’80s, Caroll joined the nighttime soap Dynasty as diva Dominique Deveraux while simultaneously making appearances on its short-lived spinoff, The Colbys. Her recurring role as Marion Gilbert in A Different World at that time earned Caroll her third Emmy nomination. Carroll later portrayed Eleanor Potter in the musical drama The Five Heartbeats, Mrs. Greyson in Lonesome Dove: The Series, Norma Desmond in a musical production of Sunset Boulevard and voiced Oueen La in the animated series The Legend of Tarzan.
Throughout her later career, Caroll appeared as Preston Burke’s demanding mother on Grey’s Anatomy, savvy widow June on White Collar, Nana in the Lifetime movies At Risk and The Front and was featured in UniGlobe Entertainment’s breast cancer docudrama 1 a Minute.
Carroll was married four times, each of which ended in divorce. She is survived by her daughter Kay and grandchildren, August and Sydney.