Diahann Carroll, Oscar-nominated, pioneering actress, dies

NEW YORK — Diahann Carroll, the Oscar-nominated actress and singer who won critical acclaim as the first black woman to star in a non-servant role in a TV series as Julia, has died. She was 84.

Carroll’s daughter, Susan Kay, told The Associated Press her mother died Friday in Los Angeles of cancer.

During her long career, Carroll earned a Tony Award for the musical No Strings and an Academy Award nomination for best actress 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 situation comedy that aired from 1968 to 1971.

“Diahann Carroll walked this earth for 84 years and broke ground with every footstep. An icon. One of the all-time greats,” director Ava DuVernay wrote on Twitter. “She blazed trails through dense forests and elegantly left diamonds along the path for the rest of us to follow. Extraordinary life. Thank you, Ms. Carroll.”

Although she was not 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.

NBC executives were wary about putting “Julia” on the network during the racial unrest of the 1960s, but it was an immediate hit.

It had its critics, though, including some who said Carroll’s character, who is the mother of a young son, was not a realistic portrayal of a black American woman in the 1960s.

“They said it was a fantasy,” Carroll recalled in 1998. “All of this was untrue. Much about the character of Julia I took from my own life, my family.”

Not shy when it came to confronting racial barriers, Carroll won her Tony portraying a high-fashion American model in Paris who has a love affair with a white American author in the 1959 Richard Rodgers musical “No Strings.” Critic Walter Kerr described her as “a girl with a sweet smile, brilliant dark eyes and a profile regal enough to belong on a coin.”

Carol Diann Johnson was born in New York City and attended the High School for the Performing Arts. Her father was a subway conductor and her mother a homemaker.

She began her career as a model in a segregated industry; she got much of her work due to publications like the black magazine Ebony. A prize from “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” TV show led to nightclub engagements.

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.

Besides her daughter, she is survived by grandchildren August and Sydney.

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