Remembering Diahann Carroll
Syndicated media critic R.D. Heldenfels once proclaimed that 1954 was television’s greatest year, in part because of its literate, live dramas and innovative comedies. But 1954 was great for another reason. It was the year that 19-year-old Diahann Carroll made her T.V. debut, winning first prize by singing on the talent show, Chance of a Lifetime. That led to a supporting role in her first motion picture, Carmen Jones, and a starring turn in the Broadway musical, No Strings, for which she won a Tony Award.
In 1974, Diahann snagged an Oscar nomination for her dramatic performance in Claudine. Along the way, she would also become a Vegas headliner, author of two books, and founder of a group that helped disadvantaged women. But Diahann was best known for her role as a single mom and registered nurse in 1968’s groundbreaking Julia. It was the first prime time program to star a woman of color in a professional career, and it won her a Golden Globe. In 1976, she starred in her own variety series, and in 1984 she joined the cast of Dynasty. Diahann also appeared as Jasmine Guy’s mother in A Different World, and her last regular series role was in support of Matt Bomer on White Collar, from 2008-2014.
In 1997, Diahann was diagnosed with breast cancer but stayed free of the disease for 22 years until it returned several months ago, and took her life on Oct. 4. Diahann was 84. She is survived by her daughter Suzanne and two grandchildren.I first met Diahann Carroll in 2008 when she participated in my Salute to T.V. Moms event at the Television Academy. Our discussion that night was wide-ranging and began with Diahann talking about her parents.
Diahann: My parents were very middle class and very old-fashioned, and anything having to do with show business was out of the question. They said that was for “racy ladies.” I even did the thing my father hated most; I performed in nightclubs, where he said, “They even pluck their eyebrows!” This man was really old-fashioned.
I also asked Diahann about how she shaped her character and the scripts on Julia, including the time when producer Hal Kanter wanted Julia’s son Corey (played by Marc Copage) to idolize John Wayne.
Diahann: I said, “Hal, are you crazy? You can’t do that with this little black child. Do you know any black people, Hal? And he said, ‘I know you now,’ and I said, “then you see what a pain in the ass I am.”
On that evening, I surprised each T.V. Mom by reuniting them with some of their co-stars. Appearing for Diahann were Marc Copage and Jasmine Guy.
Jasmine: You are so elegant, warm, and down to earth, and you’ve taught me a lot about growing up as a woman, a woman in this business, a mother, an actress. Thank you for having my back in so many ways.
Copage: Miss Carroll, I’m very lucky to have had the opportunity to play your son for three years. Having grown up without a real mother, you filled that void.
The day after Diahann passed away, I reached out to some of our friends who had worked with the great lady, among them was Marc, who echoed his thoughts from that evening 11 years ago.
Copage: Diahann was the only maternal figure I knew, and during that first season on Julia, I would beg her to take me home with her at the end of the day’s shooting. I took to her as if she was my real mother…I will greatly miss her.
Joan Collins, Diahann’s diva rival on Dynasty, emailed me and wrote, “I’m shocked and saddened to hear of Diahann’s passing. We had such fun filming Dynasty, and I have great memories of our time together.” And Linda Evans said, “Diahann was a powerful woman with the tenacity to follow her dreams. I admired her and enjoyed working with her.”
And my friend Matt Bomer, star of White Collar, told me, “We were all so blessed to know and love Diahann. She possessed a grace and elegance that you just don’t see very often anymore. She was wickedly funny, self-deprecating and lovely in every way. She was also a profound inspiration to me and helped to give me the courage to be my most authentic self.”
Truth is, it was easy to be inspired by Diahann Carroll because she excelled at everything she did and because she did those things on her terms. She even answered questions on her terms. During the “T.V. Moms” event, I asked all of the ladies if they had ever been asked to pose nude. After several of the actresses responded, I started to move on to another topic, when Diahann, said, “Jim, you didn’t ask if I had ever been asked to pose nude.” “Were you asked?” I said. “Yes,” she replied. “Well, what happened?” I asked. “That’s all I’m going to say about it,” Diahann said with a mischievous smile on her face. I’ll always remember that smile.
Jim Longworth is the host of Triad Today, airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11 a.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).