Actress Diahann Carroll Dies At 84

Oct 4, 2019
Originally published on October 4, 2019 6:57 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The singer and actress Diahann Carroll was as famous for her elegance as she was for her acting and her voice. She died today at her home in Los Angeles from complications of breast cancer. She was 84. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this appreciation.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: If you're of a certain age and love Broadway, you might recall Diahann Carroll as the ingenue who costarred in the 1961 musical drama "No Strings" where she won a Tony.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SWEETEST SOUNDS")

DIAHANN CARROLL: (Singing) The sweetest sounds I'll ever hear are still inside my head. The kindest words I'll ever know are waiting to be said.

GRIGSBY BATES: If you watched TV in the late '60s, you might remember her as Julia, a widowed single mother, a nurse who worked for a cranky doctor. It was a pioneering role. Until "Julia," black women normally showed up as maids or nannies on TV. "Julia" was a popular show. Black America was happy to be visible. White America was happy to see racial harmony on screen. But in an interview with the television academy, Carroll remembers the tension around the show's debut.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARROLL: Everyone was on the line. And everyone was scared because we were saying to the country, we're going to present a very upper-middle-class black woman raising her child. And her major concentration will not be about suffering in the ghetto.

GRIGSBY BATES: Which is not to say Carroll couldn't do ghetto. She got an Oscar nomination for her role in 1974's "Claudine," a movie about a loving but stressed single welfare mother who finds romance with a garbage man.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CLAUDINE")

ELISA LOTI: (As Miss Kabak) This man may be bringing things into your home which you may not be deducting. Now, you know I have to deduct you on those things.

CARROLL: (As Claudine) What things? What things? Damn it. You have a man come over for dinner, he brings you a bottle of wine. I have a man come over for dinner, he brings me a damn six-pack. Oh, there are two left, Ms. Kabak. Would you like a beer?

GRIGSBY BATES: In an interview with the NVLP Oral History Archive, Carroll says she had to twist arms to be considered for the role. Many thought she was too glossy to be cast, and she pushed back hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARROLL: Why wouldn't I understand welfare children and mothers? I was raised in a community that had welfare children and mothers. I don't want you to ever narrow my striving to become more in the industry by saying there's only one thing I can do.

GRIGSBY BATES: She was born to perform. Six-year-old Carol Diahann Johnson was part of the children's choir at Harlem's famed Abyssinian Baptist Church, and her voice stood out. Later, she'd earn a place at the city's music and art high school. She changed her name to Diahann Carroll when she entered a television talent show in high school and won first prize. She continued to sing wherever she could. Looking to project a new maturity, she became a glamorous cabaret singer. And she sang almost her entire life, through four husbands and one tumultuous affair with Sidney Poitier that lasted almost a decade. Toward the end of her career, Carroll decided she wanted to have a little fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARROLL: I called my my manager at the time, and I said, I think that I would like to play the first black bitch on television.

GRIGSBY BATES: As Dominique Deveraux, she shone and snarked her way through "Dynasty," a popular nighttime soap about a Denver oil family. Here she faces off with her screen nemesis, Joan Collins.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DYNASTY")

JOAN COLLINS: (As Alexis Carrington Colby) If the champagne is too burned for your taste, Ms. Deveraux, don't drink it. The caviar, I trust, is not burned.

CARROLL: (As Dominique Deveraux) I really wouldn't know. This is Osetrova, and I prefer Petrossian Beluga.

GRIGSBY BATES: Such elegant shade. She will be missed.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.