Diahann Carroll, pioneering African American actor, dies at 84 | News | DW | 04.10.2019
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Diahann Carroll, pioneering African American actor, dies at 84

With the 1960s sitcom "Julia," Diahann Carroll became the first black woman to star in her own TV show. On stage, screen and in song, she often played roles once considered the territory of white women.

Diahann Carroll, a multiple award-winning African American actor and singer who broke racial barriers with her roles, has died in Los Angeles of cancer. She was 84.

Her daughter, Susan Kay, and her manager, Brian Panella, confirmed the death on Friday.

"She had been fighting it for quite some time, and did not want the world to know," Panella told the Reuters news agency.

Carroll's best-known role was in the sitcom Julia. In the show, which ran from 1968 to 1971, she played the title character, Julia Baker, a nurse whose husband had been killed in the Vietnam War.

For much of the 20th century, African Americans in the US visual entertainment industry were long confined to either minor roles or roles in which they played domestic help. While Carroll was not the first black women to star in her own show, with Julia she became the first to star as someone other than a servant. 

Diahann Carroll appears in a still from the US sitcom 'Julia' (picture-alliance/Globe-Zuma)

In the sitcom 'Julia,' Carroll played a single mother and a Vietnam War widow

"She never wanted to praise herself for anything in that regard," Panella said. "It was more that she felt that she was a part of the expansion of the African American community in the arts, not the sole creator of that movement."

Stars like Oprah Winfrey and director Ava DuVernay praised Carroll for blazing the path for other black women.

In the 1960s, Carroll fought back criticism that her character, a single professional mother to a young son, was not realistic. "They said it was a fantasy. All of this was untrue. Much about the character of Julia I took from my own life, my family," she recalled in 1998. She won a Golden Globe for the role in 1968.

Carroll also earned numerous other stage and screen awards over a career that spanned more than five decades. 

Success onstage and onscreen

Born Carol Diahann Johnson in New York City in 1935, she started her career in her teens as a model in the segregated industry, getting much of her work from black American magazines like the well-known Ebony. She adopted her stage name Diahann Carroll while auditioning for singing groups as a teen. She later secured nightclub engagements, which she circled back to in the mid-2000s. 

Carroll often starred in stage roles that had long been exclusive to white women. She took home the 1962 Tony Award for best actress — the first ever for a black woman — for her performance in the Broadway musical No Strings, about a high-fashion model in Paris who has an affair with a white man.

In 1974, Carroll received an Academy Award nomination for best actress for the film Claudine. In the film she played a tough single mother of six kids who finds love in Harlem with a garbage man, played by James Earl Jones.

While she appeared sporadically in films, in the 1980s and 1990s she starred in numerous soap operas and TV series. She continued performing in TV movies and shows until late in life.

She published her memoir, Diahann, in 1998. In it, she traced a love life that included relationships with prominent figures such as singers Harry Belafonte and Vic Damone, jazz bandleader Duke Ellington, trumpeter Miles Davis, actors Sammy Davis Jr. and Sidney Poitier and British TV presenter David Frost.

cmb/cmk (AP, Reuters)

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