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A consummate and multi-award-winning performer on film, television, record and stage, Diahann Carroll's life was marked by a series of landmark achievements for black talent, and in particular, black female talent, for over 40 years. She was the first African-American woman to win a Tony for her turn in 1961's "No Strings;" four years later, she made history again with "Julia" (NBC, 1968-1971), the first series to star a black woman in a role other than a domestic servant. She was also the first African-American performer to replace a white actress in a Broadway play with "Agnes of God" in 1983 and the first to play Norma Desmond in the musical version of "Sunset Blvd." Along the way, there were countless honors for her work in television and film, as well as critically acclaimed nightclub appearances and a best-selling autobiography in 2008. Carroll's legendary body of work in nearly every entertainment medium proved her to be among the most acclaimed and more importantly, historically significant African-American entertainers in modern history.Born Carol Diahann Johnson in the Bronx, NY on July 17, 1935, she began singing at the age of six in the churches of Harlem and began her professional career...
A consummate and multi-award-winning performer on film, television, record and stage, Diahann Carroll's life was marked by a series of landmark achievements for black talent, and in particular, black female talent, for over 40 years. She was the first African-American woman to win a Tony for her turn in 1961's "No Strings;" four years later, she made history again with "Julia" (NBC, 1968-1971), the first series to star a black woman in a role other than a domestic servant. She was also the first African-American performer to replace a white actress in a Broadway play with "Agnes of God" in 1983 and the first to play Norma Desmond in the musical version of "Sunset Blvd." Along the way, there were countless honors for her work in television and film, as well as critically acclaimed nightclub appearances and a best-selling autobiography in 2008. Carroll's legendary body of work in nearly every entertainment medium proved her to be among the most acclaimed and more importantly, historically significant African-American entertainers in modern history.
Born Carol Diahann Johnson in the Bronx, NY on July 17, 1935, she began singing at the age of six in the churches of Harlem and began her professional career as a nightclub performer while still attending the prestigious Music and Art High School. She had gained entry into the school on a scholarship from the Metropolitan Opera that she had received at the age of ten. In fact, her voice would open doors for her throughout her career. At 15, she teamed with a friend to audition for Arthur Godfrey's popular "Talent Scouts" radio program; billed as Diahann Carroll, she won the contest and returned for a three-week engagement. The recognition led to her nightclub career, which in turn brought her to Broadway in the Truman Capote-penned musical "House of Flowers" in 1954. That same year, director Otto Preminger selected her to co-star in "Carmen Jones" opposite Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte. A second picture with Preminger - the big screen adaptation of "Porgy and Bess" (1959) - increased her profile and led to numerous singing engagements on television variety shows.
But as with most black performers of the period, Carroll found it difficult to move ahead in Hollywood. She refocused her energies on Broadway, where composer Richard Rogers had created a show expressly for her called "No Strings" (1961), which cast her as a glamorous fashion model who falls for an American novelist while living in Paris. The show earned notices for its color-blind casting - Carroll's co-star and romantic lead was white actor Richard Kiley - and for its portrayal of a black woman as a worldly sophisticate. Carroll made the part her own, and became the first African-American actress to win a Tony Award for her efforts. Two years later, she would add an Emmy nomination to her growing list of accolades for a performance on "Naked City" (ABC, 1958-1963).
Nightclub performances and guest appearances on television filled up the majority of Carroll's career in the early to mid-'60s. She also enjoyed a successful run as a recording artist with several albums of jazz and pop standards. Her stints on film remained sporadic - there was a reunion with Preminger on the overheated "Hurry Sundown" (1967) and a little-seen turn in "The Split" (1968), a Jim Brown vehicle based on a novel by Donald Westlake. Television would instead soon provide the next historic chapter in Carroll's career with "Julia."
A modest sitcom about a widowed nurse (Carroll) who juggles her career and personal life with equal amounts of poise and good cheer, "Julia" courted controversy from its very first episode. As the first television series to star a black actress in a role that did not require her to clean up after whites, it made NBC executives nervous over its potential to divide audiences along color lines. As it stood, the show was far too interested in presenting an entertaining half-hour of television to truly offend anyone - though some black audiences were rankled at Julia's lack of socio-political savvy. The show was a Top 10 hit in its debut season and won a Golden Globe in 1970. However, a drop in the ratings, combined with Carroll's weariness with off-screen debate over the series, led to her ending her contract with the network and the series' cancellation in 1971.
Carroll returned to features in 1974 as the decidedly unglamorous "Claudine" (1974), a single mother struggling to raise her children while tentatively exploring a romantic relationship with a kindly garbage man (James Earl Jones). Carroll's gritty, funny performance brought her Oscar and Golden Globe nominations, but she followed this with a return to television for "The Diahann Carroll Show" (ABC, 1976). The variety program lasted less than a season, so she returned to singing while returning to TV for "Roots: The Next Generation" (ABC, 1979) and the Maya Angelou autobiography "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" (CBS, 1979). In 1983, Carroll made headlines when she replaced Elizabeth Ashley in the Broadway production of "Agnes of God." Once again, Carroll was the first African-American actress to achieve such an accomplishment.
Renewed interest in Carroll over "Agnes of God" brought her back to television as its first black "bitch" (in her words) on "Dynasty" (ABC, 1981-89). Decked out in an appropriate armor of glamorous fashion, she tackled the improbable role of Dominique Deveraux, half-sister to Blake Carrington (John Forsythe) and all-around thorn in the side of the show's resident queen bee, Alexis Colby (Joan Collins). Carroll's tenure on the program ran from 1984 to 1987 and included guest spots on the short-lived "Dynasty" spin-off, "The Colbys" (ABC, 1985-87).
Touring as a solo performer and with her third husband, entertainer Vic Damone, occupied most of the 1980s and 1990s for Carroll, though there were occasional returns to acting throughout the decade. She played the socialite mother of Whitley Gilbert (Jasmine Guy) on several episodes of the Bill Cosby-produced "A Different World" (NBC, 1987-1993), and donned extensive makeup to play a centenarian and Civil Rights activist in "Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years" (CBS, 1999). In 2000, she played Natalie Cole's mother in "Livin' for Love: The Natalie Cole Story" (NBC, 2000), and won a 2005 Image Award for her role on Showtime's "Soul Food" (2000-04) in its third season.
Carroll made her first film appearance in nearly two decades in "The Five Heartbeats" (1991) as the wife and co-manager of the eponymous R&B vocal group. Six years later, she essayed a voodoo priestess in the critically praised independent feature "Eve's Bayou" (1997). In the midst of this flurry of activity came her historic appearance in 1995 as Norma Desmond in the Canadian production of the musical "Sunset Blvd." Carroll was again the only black actress to ever tackle the demanding role.
In 2006, Carroll began the first of many appearances on "Grey's Anatomy" (ABC, 2005- ), starring as the overbearing mother of Isaiah Washington's Dr. Burke, which earned her an Emmy in 2008. The year 2006 also marked her return to the New York nightclub scene with a stint at Feinstein's, which earned her rave reviews and SRO audiences. The author of Diahann: The Autobiography in 1986, she penned her second memoir, The Legs Are the Last to Go in 2008. The tell-all tome reached The New York Times bestseller list that year.
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"Her singing and her appearance immediately gave me the idea of starring her in a musical in which she would play a chic, sophisticated woman of the world. She would not represent a cause or be a symbol of her race, but a believeable human being, very much a part of a stratum of society that the theatre thus far had never considered for a black actress". --Richard Rodgers about writing "No Strings" for Carroll ("Musical Stages" 1975).
"And I really believe that it was important for me to do 'Agnes of God'. I think that out of 'Agnes of God' came 'Dynasty'. [Lew Erlicht, the head of ABC Entertainment] came to see me in 'Agnes of God' shortly before I closed, and when I closed I was trying to pull myself together again, because for 'Agnes' I was on stage for the entire play, and I began to watch television again, which was not my habit. And I saw 'Dynasty', and I called Aaron [Spelling] and told him that he definitely needed me. I thought it would be very wise to be the first black bitch on television, and to do it properly, not to hedge it. Make sure she was really not likeable, but quite lovely. Well, in the meeting, the gentleman who had the responsibility to say yea or nay, was the one who had seen me in 'Agnes of God'!" --Diahann Carroll in THEATERWEEK, January 1-7, 1996
"My dear, after a certain point, glamour is just maintenance, maintenance, maintenance!" --Carroll to columnist Liz Smith in May 1998
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