Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Fond Farewell: Diahann Carroll 1935-2019

The other day, on October 4th, the entertainment world lost a longtime singer and actress who managed to mark a few firsts in the business and, as a result, helped make it a little bit easier for those who came after. Her career spanned at least six decades as she reached for the heights in several categories, sometimes scaling them. We refer to Miss Diahann Carroll and today pay tribute to her legacy on stage and screen.
Carol Diahann Johnson was born on July 17th, 1935 in the Bronx, New York (but was raised in Harlem.) Her parents (a subway conductor and a nurse) lent great support to their daughter's interest in music, dance and modeling and she won a scholarship from the Metropolitan Opera to New York's High School of Music and Art. As a teen, she entered and won (for three weeks running) a contest on the radio show Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, which led to further competitions, nightclub appearances and in time, an ingenue role on Broadway!
Nineteen year-old Diahann Carroll (as she was known from her first appearance on Arthur Godfrey) was cast in her first film in 1954. It was a colorful supporting part in Otto Preminger's Carmen Jones, an all-black updating of the opera Carmen, which starred Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge and Pearl Bailey. She next was handed a plum role in Broadway's House of Flowers, a Harold Arlen-Truman Capote musical starring Bailey. Though the show only lasted five months, she won great reviews and introduced two songs, including "A Sleepin' Bee."
Carroll risked the security of her family life when she wed Jewish record producer Monte Kay in 1956 (her father declined to attend the nuptials.) The first of four marriages, this one lasted until 1960. Carroll's personal life would always be more contentious and troubled than her career.
Having appeared on various TV variety shows as a vocalist and with an occasional acting gig, Carroll was cast in another all-black musical, this time Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (1959), which was to be directed by Rouben Mamoulian until he was fired and replaced by Carmen's director Otto Preminger. Despite her vocal talent, she was dubbed by a full-on opera singer, as were costars Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge. The highly-troubled production was generally an unhappy one with the cast at odds with the subject matter, the director unhappy with the production decisions of the earlier helmsman and threats of boycott and even arson from groups who disapproved of the project. Despite all this, the movie was deemed worthy in several areas (winning an Oscar for its score and receiving three other nominations and taking the Golden Globe for Best Picture - Musical or Comedy), but the Gershwin estate was very displeased with the end result and it has not been shown on TV since the very early-1970s and has never received a home video release of any kind. It's considered a "lost film" at this point.
In 1961, Carroll and Poitier were teamed up in Paris Blues, which also starred Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, all about the romances of two musicians in the city of love. And love was also in the air for Carroll and Poitier by this time. Having grown attracted to one another during Porgy, they had an affair which ended, but then reignited here.
They had vowed to leave their spouses for one another and she divorced her husband Kay (with whom she now had a baby daughter), but Poitier did not follow through with his own divorce, remaining wed to his wife Juanita until 1965. Then he wanted to live with Carroll, but without her daughter present, which she refused to do. They continued their fractured romance for a few years, but ultimately split in the late-'60s.
Carroll had something more momentous on her plate by 1962 anyway, which was the Richard Rogers' Broadway musical No Strings, which the composer (now alone in the wake of Oscar Hammerstein's death) wrote just for her. Costarring Richard Kiley, the story of a romance between a fashion model and a writer was progressive not because of its book (which ignored the race issue), but because of its casting. Carroll took home the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical, the first time a black woman had done so.
Carroll had become an elegant guest star on various variety series, singing lush songs while decked out in glamorous evening gowns. She appeared multiple times on The Garry Moore Show and The Tonight Show with Jack Paar and also teamed up with the star of The Judy Garland Show, dueting with the movie legend on songs by Richard Rogers and Harold Arlen.
Barbara Streisand isn't the only songbird who got to sit opposite Garland and sing her heart out on TV with the movie legend.
Not contend merely to sing, Carroll also acted dramatic parts on television and received an Emmy nomination for this 1962 episode of Naked City, in which she played the teacher of a nearly blind boy who tries to champion his independence as he's accidentally separated from his class and left to fend for himself on the streets. Kim Stanley took home the statuette for a guest role on Ben Casey, but it was still a nice step in Carroll's career.
A smashing-looking Carroll added glitz and talent to any television appearance.
In 1967, Otto Preminger came calling once again, this time for the (over)heated southern melodrama Hurry Sundown, in which Carroll played a schoolteacher who returns home after living in the north and has to face all the old prejudices that are still rampant in her hometown. Here she follows Jane Fonda into a "whites only" ladies room to confront her about lies she has told in court. The all-star flick was no box office hit, but remains a fascinating viewing experience.
She had a decorative role in The Split (1968) opposite football-hero-turned-actor Jim Brown. The tough heist-gone-wrong movie boasted a great cast of character actors with no less than Julie Harris leading the way.
Trim, attractive Carroll had something else on the horizon, though. She was approached to break through another glass ceiling, this time as the first black female to star in a television series who wasn't portrayed as a domestic .
The series Julia had Carroll portraying a widowed mother and nurse (shown here with Lurene Tuttle and Lloyd Nolan.) The gentle comedy initially aired without a laugh track, but one was crudely added in reruns. In a typical "damned if you do, damned if you don't" scenario, the series was panned by many black viewers even as it was breaking new ground. Carroll's character's situation was deemed by many to be too idealized and out of touch with the reality that many black viewers were facing. (Even Carroll referred to her role at one point as a "white negro.")
Still, the series was a positive step for quite a few people who longed for a different type of life than they currently knew. It was something to aspire to that might be realized (a situation not unlike the one The Cosby Show later presented.) Carroll won a Golden Globe and was the first black woman to be nominated for an Emmy in the category Outstanding Continued Role by a Leading Actress in a Comedy Series (which went to Hope Lange for The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.) After three seasons, Carroll, seen here with her on-screen son Marc Copage, opted to end the series and move on to other things.
Carroll hadn't turned her back on singing and in 1969 hosted the glamorous variety show Hollywood Palace. Seen here with Stevie Wonder, I don't think I need to elaborate on how I feel about Carroll's wondrously gargantuan 'do!
Prior to and during the run of Julia, Carroll had been invited to present at the Oscars and always made an impression. Little did she know at the time that within a couple of years she would find herself a nominee!
She had also found love again, or so she believed, this time with British media figure nad interviewer David Frost. The two dated from 1970-1973, became engaged, and were a favorite target of the paparazzi.
Suddenly, however, the two split up and a week later Carroll married department store owner Fredde Glusman, who she'd met while purchasing a swimsuit! The ill-advised union only lasted a couple of months and fell apart amid claims of physical abuse.
Rising actress Diana Sands (who had played Carroll's cousin four times on Julia) was set to star in a seriocomic film called Claudine (1974) but was stricken with cancer. Unable to complete the part, she recommended her friend Carroll for it who dove at the chance to play a Harlem mother of six on welfare, but working under the table as a domestic, to make ends meet. At last she was playing a character that many inner-city black audience members could truly respond to and for her trouble she was nominated for the Oscar. Ellen Burstyn won that year for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, but Carroll was still finding ways to blaze trails and tear down barriers.
Carroll also dove into another marriage, this time to Robert DeLeon, the publisher of Jet magazine. The two had met when he was personally penning a cover story on her Oscar nomination for his publication. The stormy marriage was something of a roller coaster ride and DeLeon's drinking increased (as did his debt) and it all came to a sudden halt when he was killed in an automobile accident in 1977.
In 1977, Carroll went on tour with Cleavon Little (of Blazing Saddles, 1974, fame) in a re-cast production of Same Time, Next Year, which had initially starred Carol Burnett and Dick Van Dyke on Broadway.
Carroll entered camp history when she (along with Bea Arthur, Art Carney, Harvey Korman and others) appeared in the infamous 1978 The Star Wars Holiday Special, a cash-in TV spectacular that creator George Lucas ultimately disavowed from the famous movie series' canon.
In 1982 and 1983, Carroll made a temporary return to Broadway to take over for Elizabeth Ashley in Agnes of God, first for her vacation and then to assume the role. But she was about to take part in still another first...! Since the prime-time soap opera Dallas had made its debut in 1978, the genre had begun a steady climb in notoriety (and ratings!) with Knots Landing, Falcon Crest and Dynasty all riding the wave. Carroll determined that what was missing from these shows was TV's first "black bitch."
Amid a tidal wave of publicity and with the assistance of producer Aaron Spelling, she joined the cast of then-hot Dynasty as mystery woman Dominique Deveraux. The lounge singer with a cupboard full of skeletons in her closet burst onto the scene (with Carroll's old high school chum Billy Dee Williams making a few appearances as her husband.)
Ultimately determined to be Blake Carrington's half-sister, she was now a firm fixture on the show and for a time there were three gowned and bejeweled divas on the show. She was related by marriage to Linda Evans' Krystle and swiftly became a sworn enemy of Joan Collins' Alexis (though in real life, Carroll and Alexis were good friends.) She and Collins took part in one of the show's iconic catfights, clawing at each other over an article Alexis' paper had printed about Dominique.
For a little while, Carroll was indeed a severe piece of work who did put Collins in her place, but before long she became a more conventional soap opera heroine than any sort of bad girl. (And from the looks of things, sometimes wore wigs that closely resembled those of La Collins!) She timed the release of her autobiography "Diahann" perfectly so that it came out in 1986 near the height of Dynasty mania.
In 1985 when The Colbys came along, it was Carroll who made the most trips between the series, with a rekindled romance between Ken Howard and her a major story point. Few of the other Dynasty performers were willing to appear on the spin-off, but Carroll filmed seven installments (and was able to reclaim some of her imperiousness as the demanding head of a record label.) The shows also allowed her to sing occasionally.
In 1987, Carroll wed for a fourth and final time. On paper, it seemed perfect that the glamorous vocalist Carroll should wind up with smooth crooner Vic Damone and the two did perform together on stage for a time, but it was never a very secure marriage. Damone felt that Carroll was demanding on stage and off, though they did stick it out for a dozen years. Carroll was rather unceremoniously let go from Dynasty in 1987 as part of a budget cutback. There were plans to bring her back for the tenth season that wound up not to be.
If Damone thought he was married to a diva, she was about to show the world that she could also play one of the biggest on stage as well. In 1995, she joined Rex Smith for a Canadian production of Sunset Boulevard, in which she portrayed demanding (and a bit demented) silent screen actress Norma Desmond.She received generally favorable reviews with critics noting that her singing ability exceeded some Norma's who had relied more heavily on their acting.
Carroll continued to act - and to win accolades for her acting. She received a third Emmy nomination for a 1988 guest role on A Different World (losing to Colleen Dewhurst on Murphy Brown.) A fourth and final Emmy nomination came with a 2007 guest role on Grey's Anatomy as Isaiah Washington's mother. (Cynthia Nixon won that year for a stint on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.)
She also worked on 25 episodes of the Matt Bomer series White Collar, as seen here, over a five-year span. Ms. Carroll had also unveiled a successful line of wigs and often sported these creations at various public events and in interviews.
Carroll, who had faced down a bout with breast cancer in 1997 and won, was now one of the entertainment legends. She continued to act occasionally through 2016, but much of her time was spent being honored for he career strides and being interviewed for her take on the events of her six-decade career. She was eighty-four when complications from further cancer claimed her on October 4th, 2019.
We salute the talented and dynamic Miss Diahann Carroll, who found a way to pave new ground without ever intentionally doing so. She was once quoted as having said, "I like to think I opened doors for other women, although that wasn't my original intention" and "All I ever wanted to do was sing. What happened was more." We'd venture to say much more...!


Bitterness Personified said...

Spectacular tribute! Learned so many new things: no idea that Porgy and Bess is considered lost, or that Carroll followed in the trail-blazing steps of Eva Gabor and launched her own wig line! What a fierce, elegant presence she was.

Gingerguy said...

Thank you so much for this Poseidon, it was the best and most complete tribute I have read anywhere. I adored her and was so happy when I went to The African American Museum in D.C. and saw a "Julia" lunchbox included in the entertainment exhibits. I was also thrilled to find out she was a New Yorker. She was not only gorgeous but really wore clothing well and had good taste, she even looked good in the early 1970's which was not easy. Her first husband was a cutie pie. Sounds like she and Sydney were complicated, I am way too old to judge at this point but that's the first not flattering thing I have ever read about him. Romance and relationships are tough on everyone.
My appetite is further whetted to see "Hurry Sundown"now.
How How How can I have forgotten she was the holographic dancer in that Star Wars Holiday Special?? Only you mentioned it! take a bow, right now!
My Mom was divorced and having trouble making ends meet when we saw "Claudine" at the movies, we laughed and totally related to it. What can I say about her Dominique Devereaux character? she was a legend in my mind. I was watching a clip of she and Alexis going toe to toe recently ending with Alexis putting out a cigarette in a shrimp cocktail(I ordered one in a restaurant Sunday in tribute). Dominique is clearly referenced on the FOX show "Pose" often name checked by Billy Porter's character but also clearly in the attitude of the Electra character. This was glorious to read and look at.

F. Nomen said...

I’ve only ever seen her in “White Collar” but from the pilot I adored her as June, the widow (and partner) of a con man who took in Matt Bohmer’s character. She appeared in about a quarter of the episodes but was only really at the center of a couple but she filled the screen whenever she appeared.

Despite is historical significance “Julia” seems to have disappeared. I’m hoping one of the nostalgia channels will show some episodes in tribute.

A said...

Great tribute, Poseidon! So much great information. While I remember her from Julia as well as from White Collar, I somehow missed the Star Wars Holiday Special - sounds delightfully dreadful. I was really sad to hear the news.

Thanks for another wonderful post!


EricSwede said...

Beautiful tribute to a very talented lady. "Julia" reruns can be seen on Aspire TV on Saturday mornings, along with "Room 222." Interesting about Poitier asking her to get rid of her kid. Esther Williams didn't have a problem with it when Fernando Lamas asked her to do the same thing.

Poseidon3 said...

Bitterness Personified (love that online handle!), the story of the movie of "Porgy and Bess" is SO tangled and complicated. It's a fascinating situation. I wish people could be given the right to check it out for themselves and see what they think of it. Some of Miss Diahann's wigs in her line are great, some less so. But I do think there is more variety than Miss Eva had, though the industry has changed markedly since her days...! Thank you!

Gingerguy, I truly appreciate your compliment. I live for being told that my scribblings are better than those other "professional" ones out there, though that's also a little sad, I think. As for Sidney Poitier, I think he could be a bit complicated with women. Eartha Kitt LOATHED him. But he and Diahann did settle their hash and she ultimately had good things to say about him and sympathy for the weight he carried as that rare animal: a 1950s and '60s black leading man. I think you would be FLOORED by "Hurry Sundown." I'm sorry for your loss in Diahann. It seems she resonated with you even more than with me! I wish I'd had time to be even more thorough. Last night in bed it struck me that I had omitted her TV-movie about the early life of Maya Angelou, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." Thanks, as always.

F. Nomen, not to open a can of worms, but it wouldn't surprise me to find out that somehow "Julia" is now considered "offensive" by some thanks to its dated consideration of race relations and/or terminology and that's why major stations don't air it. But I personally am never in support of the suppression of programming or censorship/altering. I think at the very least we can learn how things were or how things were made-to-be at that time and appreciate any changes that have occurred. (I say this not only with regard to racial issues, but ANY social issue, including sexuality/gender and so forth.)

A, I was given a homemade DVD of the infamous "Star Wars" special several years ago and was agog at how incredibly cheesy it was. It's something to see... ONCE.

EricSwede, glad to know that "Julia" is being aired (though I couldn't begin to know what that channel is!) Both that and "Room 222" are so rarely shown. Perhaps the rights to them are low as a result and that station snapped them up. I have never seen an episode of either show! I bet the clothes alone are worth checking out. :-) At least Sidney only suggested a 6-month trial period and not her giving up the child completely...! But I hear ya!

EricSwede said...

Aspire TV is running a "Julia" marathon this Saturday morning-check here for availability in your area https://aspire.tv/cdm

joel65913 said...

Lovely tribute Poseidon!

I wouldn't go so far as to say I was a huge fan of hers in the sense that if she was in something I had to see it but if I saw her name in the cast list it was a positive.

I did DVR the Julia marathon yesterday and have already watched a couple of episodes which have flooded me with nostalgia. We watched the show regularly when I was a kid, and I've had a soft spot for Lloyd Nolan (who played the doctor she worked for) and Lurene Tuttle (who played her fellow nurse in the practice-the acerbic Hannah Yarby) ever since, and watching it now takes me back. Diahann is decked out in every episode in one smart, and probably expensive beyond the character's means, outfit after another whenever she's not in her crisp white nurse's uniform. I don't know why it's not more frequently shown, it's situations aren't usually out of the sitcom norm but Julia is never demeaned nor treated like a second class citizen and they do address many issues just not in a searing warts and all way.

By the way I also watch (and watched when it was on) Room 222 and it's another one that was quite progressive for its time and still plays well. And it's a nascent stargazer heaven! In one episode alone Rob Reiner, Teri Garr and Cindy Williams were all students in the classroom! Richard Dreyfuss was the star of another as was Kurt Russell and there was plenty of others plus a really terrific main cast.

Back to Diahann Carroll. I have seen Carmen Jones, I found a less than stellar copy online, and while everyone was talented and did their collective best I didn't think much of the film. For one thing the color palette was muddy, and I don't think it was just the inferior print, and the staging was awful. Many of the scene were shot at a vast distance, probably to highlight the CinemaScope but it made the film chilly and remote.

However compared to the hooty mint julep D-I-S-A-S-T-E-R that is Hurry, Sundown it was high art. I don't really recall much of Diahann's part in it since pretty much everyone else is busy making a fool of themselves and Faye Dunaway despite being a dirt poor sharecropper's wife with a passel of kids manages to still be ravishing!

She was fun on Dynasty but where I remember her from mostly beyond Julia was her time on White Collar (LOVED that show!!!). It was great to see her in a role that used her innate dignity in a classy show.

Poseidon3 said...

ErisSwede, thank you so much for that info! Turns out I do have that channel, way up in the hinterlands of my satellite TV, so I was able to record some of the marathon (I picked four episodes, one each from 1968, '69, '70 and '71!) It was a very sweet and amusing show. Thank GOD they ran it as it originally aired, with no laugh track. I was amazed that even the opening credits were totally foreign to me, that's how little I'd ever seen of the show. Diahann was immensely likable in it and SO stylish.

Joel, as I mentioned above, I also got to see some of it. Her wardrobe was one thing that the creators decided was going to have to be a concession to sitcom unreality (at least she did have a one-bedroom apartment and slept on a pull-out sofa, rather than some huge spread somewhere.) Apart from any other real or imagined issues with the show, what slayed me was they she went on a job interview in the pilot and left her 5 year-old son at home alone for two hours! LOL I have to confess I was left alone from 3:30pm to 5:30pm every weekday when I was 7. I was a "latch-key" child. My mother had arranged a place for me to stay initially, but I hated it there so much. It reeked of old bologna and God knows what else, so I implored her to trust me by myself. But this was 1974. Today I don't know if that would fly.... I'll have to check out "Room 222!" Were you by any chance meaning "Porgy and Bess" when you referred to "Carmen Jones?" Even Diahann got them confused in her Legends of TV interview! Because I saw a horrible print of "Porgy" and it sounded a lot like what you describe. I'm amazed that so many people here saw and liked her on "White Collar." That's awesome that she had latter day success on there. Thanks!

joel65913 said...

Oops!!! I did mean Porgy & Bess!! Although to be honest I'm not that fond of Carmen Jones either but it was definitely a better looking film than P&B. The copy I saw was crappy but even if they cleaned it up that wouldn't fix the staging which is what I thought was the movie's major flaw.

Nice Mike said...

Thank you very much for this overview of the life and work of Diahann Carroll. As a young Black guy growing in the 1960's, when so few Black stars appeared on television or in movies - so few in fact that Jet magazine had to publish a listing each edition - this was a refreshing look at those times. One funny story about Diahann Carroll on the television show Dynasty - the network had mistakenly aired the preview of a fight scene between Diahann Carroll's character and the Alexis character two weeks before the that particular episode was to appear. In any case, the telephone grapevine was active - and mother who did not regularly watch the show was primed for the episode. Thank you for his look back at Diahann Carroll's life.

Poseidon3 said...

Nice Mike, thank you so much for reading and commenting! I have to say I recently went down the rabbit hole on youtube when it comes to Diahann. She has many interviews uploaded there, some of them long, and she was truly such an insightful and well-spoken lady. I have so enjoyed listening to her speak about... well, anything! And she was also funny (and, let's face it, probably a bit of a diva in her weaker moments.) I knew her mostly from "Dynasty" so seeing the very comforting and soothing "Julia" was a neat contrast. You know... that Diahann/Joan catfight was the ONLY episode of "Dynasty" that I ever missed watching in its original airing. I was living with my grandmother and we had an old school cable box with a long row of channel numbers and an actual plastic slider you would move back and forth to change channels (!! - Jesus!!) She dusted the TV set that evening and moved the channel and the VCR recorded something else!!! I did get to see it years later in reruns, of course, and it's a scream... "ReTRACT this or I will cram it down your THROAT!" Ha ha ha! Anyway, I appreciate your perspective and thank you again for your time.

2 Sticks of Butter said...

Thanks for this wonderful tribute to Miss Carroll. Always better than the parts given to her; she was criminally underused in DYNASTY.