Diahann Carroll, born Carol Diahann Johnson is an American television and stage actress, singer and model known for her performances in some of the earliest major studio films to feature black casts, including Carmen Jones (1954) and Porgy and Bess (1959) as well as on Broadway.
Julia (1968) was one of the first series on American television to star a black woman in a nonstereotypical role and was followed by her portrayal of Dominique Deveraux in the primetime soap opera Dynasty over three seasons. She is the recipient of numerous stage and screen nominations and awards, including the Golden Globe Award for “Best Actress In A Television Series” in 1968.
She received an Academy Award for Best Actress nomination for the 1974 film Claudine. A breast cancer survivor and activist, Carroll was scheduled to return to the Broadway stage in the 2014 revival of A Raisin in the Sun as Mama, but withdrew prior to opening citing the demands of the rehearsal and performance schedule.
Carroll was born, July 17, 1935, in the Bronx, New York, to John Johnson, of Aiken, South Carolina, and Mabel (Faulk), of Bladenboro, North Carolina. When Carroll was an infant, the family moved to Harlem, where she grew up. She attended Music and Art High School, and was a classmate of Billy Dee Williams.
In many interviews about her childhood, Diahann Carroll recalls her parents’ support of her and that they enrolled her in dance, singing, and modeling classes. By the time Diahann Carroll was 15, she was modeling for Ebony. She was tall, with a lean model’s build. After graduating from high school, Diahann Carroll attended New York University, majoring in sociology.
At the age of 18, Carroll got her big break when she appeared as a contestant on the Dumont Television Network program, Chance of a Lifetime, hosted by Dennis James. On the show which aired January 8, 1954, Carroll took the $1,000 top prize for her rendition of the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein song, “Why Was I Born?” She went on to win the following four weeks. Engagements at Manhattan’s Café Society and Latin Quarter nightclubs soon followed.
Carroll’s film debut was a supporting role in Carmen Jones (1954) as a rival to the sultry lead character played by Dorothy Dandridge. That same year, she starred in the Broadway musical, House of Flowers. In 1959, she played Clara in the film version of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, but her character’s singing parts were dubbed by opera singer Loulie Jean Norman.
She made a guest appearance in the series Peter Gunn, in the 1960 episode “Sing a Song of Murder”. She starred with Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman, and Joanne Woodward in the 1961 film Paris Blues. In 1962, Diahann won the Tony Award for best actress (a first for a black woman) for the role of Barbara Woodruff in the Samuel A. Taylor and Richard Rodgers musical No Strings. In 1974, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for the film Claudine.
Carroll is well known for her title role in the 1968 television series Julia, which made her the first African American actress to star in her own television series where she did not play a domestic worker. That role won her the Golden Globe Award for “Best Actress In A Television Series” in 1968, and a nomination for an Emmy Award in 1969.
Some of her earlier work also included appearances on shows hosted by Jack Paar, Merv Griffin, Johnny Carson, Judy Garland, and Ed Sullivan, and on The Hollywood Palace variety show. In 1984, Carroll joined the nighttime soap opera Dynasty as the jetsetter Dominique Deveraux, half-sister of Blake Carrington.
Her high-profile role on Dynasty also reunited her with schoolmate Billy Dee Williams, who briefly played her onscreen husband Brady Lloyd. Carroll remained on the show until 1987, simultaneously making several appearances on its short-lived spin-off, The Colbys. She received her third Emmy nomination in 1989 for the recurring role of Marion Gilbert in A Different World.
In 1991, Carroll played the role of Eleanor Potter, the wife of Jimmy Potter, portrayed by Chuck Patterson, in The Five Heartbeats, a musical drama film in which Jimmy manages a vocal group. In this role, Carroll was a doting, concerned, and protective wife alongside actor and musician Robert Townsend, Leon Michael Wright, and others.
In a 1995 reunion with Billy Dee Williams in Lonesome Dove: The Series, she played Mrs. Greyson, the wife of Williams’ character. In 1996, Carroll starred as the self-loving and deluded silent movie star Norma Desmond in the Canadian production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical version of the classic film Sunset Boulevard. In 2001, Carroll made her animation début in The Legend of Tarzan, in which she voiced Queen La, an evil sorceress and ruler of the ancient city of Opar.
In 2006, she appeared in the television medical drama Grey’s Anatomy as Jane Burke, the demanding mother of Dr. Preston Burke. In December 2008, Carroll was cast in USA Network’s series White Collar as June, the savvy widow who rents out her guest room to Neal Caffrey.
In 2010, Carroll was featured in UniGlobe Entertainment’s breast cancer docudrama entitled, 1 a Minute, and she appeared as Nana in two Lifetime movies: At Risk and The Front, movie adaptations of two Patricia Cornwell novels.
Diahann was present on stage for the 2013 Emmy Awards, to briefly speak about her retrospective of being the first African American nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award. She was quoted as saying, “talented Kerry Washington better win!” Washington erroneously stated that Carroll was the first black performer ever to be nominated for an Emmy.
Actually, at least three black performers were nominated before Carroll, who was first nominated in 1963. These performers include: Ethel Waters for a guest appearance on Route 66, in 1962; Harry Belafonte, nominated in 1956 and 1961 and winning in 1960; and Sammy Davis Jr., who was nominated in 1956 with Belafonte.