Remembering Diahann Carroll

Diahann Carroll in the 1960s

"If you're not invited to the party, throw your own." -Diahann Carroll

Diahann Carroll in the early 70s

This past Friday the legendary former model singer, actress, and breast cancer activist Diahann Carroll passed away. The announcement was made by her daughter Suzanne Kay. She had long battle with cancer and succumbed to it. Diahann Carroll was born Carol Diahann Johnson in Bronx, New York  on July 17, 1935. Diahann's family moved to Harlem when was still an infant. She was the eldest daughter of  John Johnson and Mabel Faulk. Her parents were from the South and relocated to New York City during The Great Migration. This was time in American history when Black Americans wanted to leave behind the harsh realities of the Jim Crow South. However, many of them still endured racism and poverty in Northern cities. Despite that many Black Americans were able to create their own economies and develop art in all forms Diahann's socialization in Harlem would serve as a benefit to her. She was exposed to culture through music, dance, etc. In various interviews she stated her parents supported her career aspirations as a child they enrolled her in singing, dancing, and modeling classes. 

Diahann Carroll and Patti Labelle on A Different World 1992

At the age of 15 she began her modeling career as a print model for Ebony magazine. Additionally, she earned a scholarship to Music and Art High School. One of her classmates was future actor and singer Billy Dee Williams the two developed a friendship and would later work together on the hit series Dynasty. While she was still in high school entered television contest such as Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, under the name Diahann Carroll. She thought changing her name would be more appealing. After graduating from high school she enrolled at New York University (NYU) and studied sociology but decided to drop out to pursue her career in show business. Her parents were not pleased with her decision but she promised them if her entertainment career did not achieve success she would go back to school.

Diahann's career slowly began to take off by the time she was 18. She appeared as a contestant on the program Chance of a Lifetime. She appeared on the show on January 8, 1954 and took home the 1,000 prize for her rendition of the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein song, "Why Was I Born?" She remained a contestant for another four weeks and was booked for many nightclub appearances. Her film debut came that same year in Carmen Jones. She starred alongside heavyweights Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, and Pearl Bailey. She was the youngest person in the cast. Following the success of Carmen Jones she starred in the Broadway Play House of Flowers. A few years later she starred in George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess her singing parts were dubbed by opera singer Loulie Jean Norman. She appeared on the popular series Peter Gunn in 1960. A year later she starred in the film Paris Blues. Her cast mates were Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman, and Jean Woodard. The soundtrack featured music from Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. The film focused on music, race relations, and life in Paris. She would make history a year later by being the first Black woman to win a Tony Award for the Broadway play No Strings. Her popularity soared but she became active in supporting the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. By 1968 she became a household name for her role as Julia Baker in the show "Julia." This role was significant because it was the first time a Black woman would star in her own series in a non subservient role. Julia Baker was widowed nurse and single mother. However, the series received some criticism from the Black American community. Carroll said she understood why. Some people had an issue with the fact that Julia had a new boyfriend each week because it presented the notion that she was a loose woman. Some argued the series initiated the Black single mother archetype which meant there was no Black father figure presence. Former NFL star and actor Fred Williamson was cast as her love interest to solve those problems.

Diahann Carroll and Kerry Washington

Diahann Carroll starred in the film Claudine in 1974. This film showed her range as an actress it was a departure from her glamorous persona. It showed a single mother attempting to have a dating life in New York. She received an Oscar nomination for this role. Throughout the 1970s she continued to tour, appear in films, television. She even had her own variety show.  New life would be brought into her career during the 1980s when she told Aaron Spelling she wanted to be "the first black bitch on television" in the series Dynasty. She took over the series in her three year stint as the iconic Dominique Deveraux. She continued the role in the short-lived spin-off The Colbys. She would be cast as Marion Gilbert the mother of Southern belle Whitley Gilbert on A Different World the spin-off of The Cosby Show. She received another Emmy nomination for this role. In 1991 she starred in the cult classic film The Five Heartbeats. By 1997 she starred in the popular film Eve's Bayou as the voodoo fortune teller. Diahann Carroll remained active in her acting career until 2015. Her doctor's advised her to limit her public appearances as well.

Toni's Thoughts: Even though I never knew Diahann Carroll I always wanted to meet her.  I was born in 1991 so I was apart of the generation that watched her on A Different World and The Five Heartbeats, and the Soul Food series. When I was in middle school I had to do a Black History report on Diahann Carroll and Billie Holiday. I was fascinated with both women. I became enamored with Diahann Carroll because of her beauty and talent. I legit shed a tear when I found out that she had passed away. Additionally, I loved her confidence and glamorous persona. In the fall of 2008 she released her memoir The Legs Are The Last Thing To Go: Aging, Acting, Marrying, & Other Things I Learned the Hard Way it was my senior year of high school. I read the book in college and loved it she was transparent about everything in her life in the book. She also gave advice about life and how to stay sane in Hollywood also known as Hollyweird as I call it. My deepest sympathy and condolences are with her daughter and grandchildren as well as her friends. Ms. Carroll was a Queen and should forever be regarded as such. She was also a staple in Black America and America as a whole. I totally understand why  my grandmothers, aunts, and other women in my family admired her because of the way she carried herself professionally. My favorite Diahann Carroll films are Paris Blues, Claudine, and The Five Heartbeats. I loved her as Marion Gilbert and I have seen Julia and Dynasty in syndication. Rest in power Ms. Carroll.

Sunrise: July 17, 1935
Sunset: October 4, 2019

The Legs Are The Last Thing To Go: Aging, Acting, Marrying, & Other Things I Learned the Hard Way Diahann Carroll

Here is a clip of Diahann Carroll and Sidney Poitier in Paris Blues

Here is a clip of Diahann Carroll and Jim Brown in The Split

Here is a clip of Diahann Carroll as Marion Gilbert on A Different World with Patti Labelle

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