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Diahann Carroll, pioneering actress, Oscar nominee and singer has died at 84

The actress died at her home after a long battle with cancer.

SInger-actress Diahann Carroll is pictured in 1972.
SInger-actress Diahann Carroll is pictured in 1972.
AP Photos

Diahann Carroll, the Oscar-nominated actress and singer who won critical acclaim as the first black woman to star in a non-servant role in a TV series as “Julia,” has died. She was 84.

Carroll’s daughter, Susan Kay, told The Associated Press her mother died Friday in Los Angeles after a long bout with cancer.

During her long career, which included frequent headlining gigs in Las Vegas, Carroll earned a Tony Award for the musical “No Strings” and an Academy Award nomination for “Claudine.” She also starred in the 1959 film version of “Porgy & Bess,” opposite Dorothy Dandridge and Sydney Poitier.

But she was perhaps best known for her pioneering work on “Julia.” Carroll played Julia Baker, a nurse whose husband had been killed in Vietnam, in the groundbreaking situation comedy that aired from 1968 to 1971.

Although she was not the first black woman to star in her own TV show (Ethel Waters played a maid in the 1950s series “Beulah”), she was the first to star as someone other than a servant.

NBC executives were wary about putting “Julia” on the network during the racial unrest of the 1960s, but it was an immediate hit.

It had its critics, though, including some who said Carroll’s character, who is the mother of a young son, was not a realistic portrayal of a black American woman in the 1960s.

“They said it was a fantasy,” Carroll recalled in 1998. “All of this was untrue. Much about the character of Julia I took from my own life, my family.”

Julia (Diahann Carroll) and Dr. Brown (Roy Glenn, sr.) signal each other that they know how to guide a doubtful Corey (Marc Copage) through his dental appointment in a 1969 episode of “Julia.”
Julia (Diahann Carroll) and Dr. Brown (Roy Glenn, sr.) signal each other that they know how to guide a doubtful Corey (Marc Copage) through his dental appointment in a 1969 episode of “Julia.”
NBC

Not shy when it came to confronting racial barriers, Carroll was the first African American woman to win a Tony Award for an actress in a leading role, for her portrayal of a high-fashion American model in Paris who has a love affair with a white American author in the 1959 Richard Rodgers musical “No Strings.” Critic Walter Kerr described her as “a girl with a sweet smile, brilliant dark eyes and a profile regal enough to belong on a coin.”

She appeared often in plays previously considered exclusive territory for white actresses: “Same Time, Next Year,” ‘’Agnes of God” and “Sunset Boulevard” (as faded star Norma Desmond, the role played by Gloria Swanson in the 1950 film.) In 2014 she unexpectedly withdrew from the Broadway revival of “A Raisin in the Sun” opposite Denzel Washington, citing the heavy demands of rehearsals and the performance schedule.

”I like to think that I opened doors for other women, although that wasn’t my original intention,” she said in 2002.

Her film career was sporadic. She began with a secondary role in “Carmen Jones” in 1954 and five years later appeared in “Porgy and Bess,” although her singing voice was dubbed because it wasn’t considered strong enough for the Gershwin opera. Her other films included “Goodbye Again,” ‘’Hurry Sundown,” ‘’Paris Blues,” anvid “The Split.”

Claudine (Diahann Carroll, fourth from left) and Roop (James Earl Jones, center) take the family for a walk in a scene from the film “Claudine.”
Claudine (Diahann Carroll, fourth from left) and Roop (James Earl Jones, center) take the family for a walk in a scene from the film “Claudine.”
20th Century Fox

The 1974 film “Claudine” provided her most memorable role. She played a hard-bitten single mother of six who finds romance in Harlem with a garbage man played by James Earl Jones. Carroll says she got the role after the intended lead actress, Diana Sands, became sick and insisted her friend take the role (Sands died in 1973). But Carroll said those behind the movies did not see her in the role because of her work in “Julia” and made her audition without makeup.

“Give me a chance. Just give me the opportunity to show you that I understand,” she recalled telling them in an interview with the National Visionary Leadership Project. “I’m an actress, singer, from New York City, from the streets of New York, and I pride myself on my work ... I would like to be given the opportunity to stretch my wings.”

In the 1980s, she appeared in the long-running prime-time soap opera “Dynasty” for three years. More recently, she had a number of guest shots and small roles in TV series, including playing the mother of Isaiah Washington’s character, Dr. Preston Burke, on “Grey’s Anatomy.”

She also returned to her roots in nightclubs. In 2006, she made her first club appearance in New York in four decades, singing at Feinstein’s at the Regency. Reviewing a return engagement in 2007, a New York Times critic wrote that she sang “Both Sides Now” with “the reflective tone of a woman who has survived many severe storms and remembers every lightning flash and thunderclap.”

Actress Halle Berry presents actress Diahann Carroll the Groundbeaking Role Award during the TV Land Awards at the Hollywood Palladium in 2003.
Actress Halle Berry presents actress Diahann Carroll the Groundbeaking Role Award during the TV Land Awards at the Hollywood Palladium in 2003.
Getty Images

Carol Diann Johnson was born in New York City and attended the High School for the Performing Arts. Her father was a subway conductor and her mother a homemaker.

She began her career as a model, but a prize from “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” TV show led to nightclub engagements.

In her 1998 memoir “Diahann,” Carroll traced her turbulent romantic life, which included liaisons with Harry Belafonte, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., Sidney Poitier and David Frost. She even became engaged to Frost, but the engagement was canceled.

An early marriage to nightclub owner Monte Kay resulted in Carroll’s only child, Suzanne, as well as a divorce. She also divorced her second husband, retail executive Freddie Glusman, later marrying magazine editor Robert DeLeon, who died.

Her most celebrated marriage was in 1987, to singer Vic Damone, and the two appeared together in nightclubs. But they separated in 1991 and divorced several years later.

After she was treated for breast cancer in 1998, she spoke out for more money for research and for free screening for women who couldn’t afford mammograms.

”We all look forward to the day that mastectomies, chemotherapy and radiation are considered barbaric,” Carroll told a gathering in 2000.

On Twitter, Debbie Allen, actress, dancer and director, who was a producer on “A Different World” wrote: “Diahann Carroll you taught us so much. We are stronger, more beautiful and risk takers because of you. We will forever sing your praises and speak your name. Love Love Love, Debbie.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson also took to Twitter to express his sentiments: “#DiahannCarroll was a transformative force for freedom. She identified with Dr King in the civil rights movement with a simple kiss. She brought down ancient barriers & built bridges. She left the world better than she found it. We are in her debt. We miss her so much already. RIP”

Besides her daughter, Carroll is survived by grandchildren August and Sydney.