The problem is that when it comes time to honor those who have made a positive contribution to our country and culture, nobody remembers who they are. I confess, it drives me nuts. Today a medical technician revealed that she had no idea what “Ben-Hur” was. No chariot race, no galley slave scene. Well, she’s a drag on the culture. Catch up.
Actress and singer Diahann Carroll, 84, died on October 4, and her death received small and momentary notice. Yet she was another one of the brave, trail-blazing African Americans whose intelligence, charm, talent and willingness to take risks helped move the stubborn needle toward racial conciliation and away from bigotry. Of course, she was remarkable–unusually gorgeous, unusually talented, unusually intelligent. It never seemed like she set out to become a civil rights and cultural icon, but somehow the position just found her. Most important of all, when she was given the chance to make white people think differently about black people, she did it. She also made it look easy.
Carroll was a trained singer who was cast in several musicals on Broadway, but she wasn’t content to occupy such a narrow niche. She joined Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio, and mastered precise and elegant diction and phrasing. Shortly afterward, in 1963, Carroll earned the first of her four career Emmy nomination for using that diction portraying a teacher on ABC’s “Naked City.”
Composer Richard Rodgers spotted her during one of her frequent singing appearances on Jack Paar’s “Tonight Show” and resolved to create a Broadway musical built around her talents. The result was 1962’s “No Strings,” a love story revolving around an African American fashion model (Carroll) and a white novelist, played by Richard Kiley, later the original Don Quixote in “Man of La Mancha,” but now known by Gen X, if at all, as the voice on the Jurassic Park ride.
The amazing thing about “No Strings” was that the interracial romance was portrayed so casually, with race barely mentioned. Kiley and Carroll pulled the miracle off, but a better score would have helped: Rodger wrote both the lyrics and the music, since his partner Hammerstein had died. Still, Carroll won rave reviews and a Tony Award, the first given to a black woman for best actress in a lead role of a musical.
Then, in 1968, she was approached by an NBC executive to star as Julia Baker, a widowed nurse raising a young son, on the sit-com “Julia. She became the first African American female to star in a non-stereotypical role in her own prime time network series. Before her, black actresses mostly played maids.
Julia’s husband had died in Vietnam. Educated and outspoken, she worked for a crusty old white doctor (Lloyd Nolan) at an aerospace company. Later, she told an interviewer, “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 is not going to be about suffering in the ghetto.”
No, Bill Cosby was not the trailblazer in this respect…and Diahann Carroll never raped anyone, either.
Carroll had a rich career, getting an Academy Award nomination for her title-role performance in “Claudine” (1974), playing a Harlem woman on welfare who raises six children and has a romance with a garbage collector played by James Earl Jones. In the Eighties, she played Dominique Deveraux, the first major African American character on a prime time soap opera, for three seasons on ABC’s Dynasty and its spinoff The Colbys. She was, by her estimation, “the first black bitch on television.”
Diahann Carroll left show business and the culture better, more diverse and accepting than when she entered them. She made a difference. We owe her. She deserves to be remembered.