WorldWide Entertainment TV sends prayers and condolences to the family and friends of trailblazing actress Diahann Caroll who passed away at the age of 84. She was the first black woman to star in a role that didn’t portray her as a servant. She starred in the television series “Julia” and paved the way for future stars such as Kerry Washington on Scandal as Olivia Pope or Taraji P. Henson as Cookie on Empire. Carroll earned a Tony Award for the musical “No Strings” and an Academy Award nomination for “Claudine.”
Carroll’s daughter, Susan Kay, told The Associated Press her mother died Friday in Los Angeles of cancer.
Caroll’s pioneering work on “Julia” saw her play Julia Baker, a nurse whose husband had been killed in Vietnam, in the groundbreaking situation comedy that aired from 1968 to 1971. The show aired during the turbulent 1960’s when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X were fighting for civil rights with boycotts and marches, so it clearly shows how Caroll’s role was groundbreaking for its time.
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.
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.”
She didn’t want to do it. “I really didn’t believe that this was a show that was going to work,” she said in the 1998 interview for the website The Interviews: An Oral History of Television. “I thought it was something that was going to leave someone’s consciousness in a very short period of time. I thought, ‘Let them go elsewhere.’ ”
She was no stranger to controversial roles that went against the norms of the system. Carroll won a Tony for portraying 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.”
Caroll’s talents saw her receive roles that were traditionally saved 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.)
“I like to think that I opened doors for other women, although that wasn’t my original intention,” she said in 2002.
“Claudine” was a film in 1974 that many remember from the time period fondly. She played a single mother of six who finds romance in Harlem with a garbage man played by James Earl Jones.
The iconic soap opera that was popular in the 1980’s, “Dynasty”, saw her acting for three years with the “slap heard round the world” when her character “Dominque” slapped “Alexis”.
She remained active in Hollywood in recent years playing the mother of Isaiah Washington’s character, Dr. Preston Burke, on “Grey’s Anatomy.”