Her Career, Romances Were Legendary. Goodbye to a 'Pioneer'

Oscar-nominated Diahann Carroll was first black woman to star in non-servant role on TV
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Oct 4, 2019 1:00 PM CDT
An Acting 'Pioneer,' Dead at 84
This 1972 file image shows singer and actress Diahann Carroll. Carroll died Friday at her home in Los Angeles after a long bout with cancer. She was 84.   (AP Photo/Jean-Jacques Levy, File)

(Newser) – Diahann Carroll, the Oscar-nominated actress and singer who won critical acclaim as the first black woman to star in a non-servant role on TV—in the series Julia—has died at 84. Carroll's daughter, Suzanne Kay, told the AP her mother died Friday in Los Angeles of cancer. During her long career, Carroll appeared in the prime-time soap opera Dynasty for three years, earned a Tony Award for the musical No Strings, and took home an Academy Award nomination for Claudine. But she was perhaps best known for her pioneering work on Julia. Carroll played Julia Baker, a nurse whose husband had been killed in Vietnam, in the groundbreaking sitcom that aired from 1968 to 1971. Although she wasn't 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.

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NBC executives were wary about putting Julia on the network during the racial unrest of the 1960s, but it was an immediate hit. "Much about the character of Julia I took from my own life, my family," Carroll said in 1998 in response to critics who said Carroll's character wasn't a realistic portrayal of a black American woman in the 1960s. In her memoir Diahann, Carroll traced her turbulent romantic life, which included liaisons with Harry Belafonte, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., and Sidney Poitier. An early marriage to nightclub owner Monte Kay resulted in Carroll's only child, Suzanne, as well as a divorce. She also divorced her second husband, retail executive Freddie Glusman, later marrying magazine editor Robert DeLeon, who died. Her most celebrated marriage was in 1987, to singer Vic Damone.

(Read more obituary stories.)

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