A few days ago, Hollywood legend, actress/singer Diahann Carroll passed away. She was 84 years old. The star of the late 1960s television drama Julia, she was the first African-American woman to play the lead on a television show in the United States. Consequently, Ms. Carroll helped pave the way for African-American women to have careers in Hollywood. She was also the first African-American woman to win a Tony Award in 1962, for her role in the Broadway show No Strings.
Diahann Carroll was a talented actress and singer, worthy of being considered a truly great performer, on the merits of her accomplishments.
For the 1974 film Claudine, she received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Many will also remember her role as Dominique Deveraux in the popular TV soap opera Dynasty.
As a singer, Ms. Carroll performed on famous TV shows including the Eddie Fisher Show, The Dean Martin Show and a series of musical TV specials for CBS called The Diahann Carroll Show. She also performed on the Las Vegas Strip at the famous Copa Room at the Sands Hotel and Casino and other resorts on the main drag of the Entertainment Capital of the World.
Many of today’s prominent African-American female entertainers credit Ms. Carroll as a groundbreaker, a pioneer who helped open doors for them. Some of those women, including Oprah Winfrey, Kerry Washington and past CYInterview guest Anika Noni Rose [see here and see here] paid tribute to her on social media.
Diahann Carroll was a Hollywood legend in every way and someone who will be missed by many. In 2008, CYInterview had a chance to speak with her about a variety of topics. Our conversation took place during her book tour for her memoir, The Legs are the Last to Go.
You can read the entire transcript of that CYInterview or listen to it in its entirety below:
Listen to the entire Diahann Carroll CYInterview:
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Chris Yandek: So, I have to say, at the end of the book you say you’re in a very happy place right now. So, can you describe it for me what it’s like for you right now in that happy place?
Diahann Carroll: Well, I’ve done most of the things I’ve really wanted to do in my career. I am enjoying my family. That includes my grandchildren. I am enjoying my friends more than I ever have in my life because I have the time, and travel, and I just think it’s kind of the best of all worlds. So everything is better than I’ve ever had it before.
Chris Yandek: But why do you think it is?
Diahann Carroll: I think I’ve probably been coming here to this place, trying to arrive here for a very long time and when I saw it and recognized it, my life was taking a turn for the better after the divorce and after learning about the breast cancer, I was very grateful for all of it and I intend to enjoy it and enjoy it with the pride of what went before so that I arrived here safely.
Chris Yandek: Thankfully. It’s been almost 40 years since that Golden Globe win for Julia for best female actress in a TV series. What do you think Julia meant to women overall?
Diahann Carroll: The first exposure to a middle class Black American woman raising her son alone working as she raises her son and the circumstances that are thrust upon them. Her husband was killed in the war, Vietnam. I think that all of those characteristics that Hal Kanter put into that lifestyle that he created for Julia. I think they’re all terribly important and I think they’re still are important, but Julia happened to be the first time a Black American was starring in a TV series and with a child and a life. And many of the comments that were made at that time was the fact that usually the American public was treated to a story about someone who was a maid or something in the servitude. So yeah, I think it was very important to a lot of women.
Chris Yandek: You were away from your mother and your father for a year, your younger years and they did it because they wanted to build a better financial life for your family. You know, move up in the world as they say and you say in the book, “And I still believe that year – and the fear I subsequently had of being left behind – caused me to stick with men who were absolutely wrong for me later in my life. I also carried with me a feeling that I had done something wrong to deserve such treatment from people I loved so very much.” Why do you think you did something wrong?
Diahann Carroll: Well, when you’re that age and your parents disappear, which is literally what happened cause when I waked the next morning my mother was gone, children feel it’s their fault. If the father leaves or the mother leaves, children usually relate to that as I did something wrong. You know, why isn’t daddy here? Why isn’t mommy here? I don’t know why the child feels, but I think that’s still true. Of course it sounds like a psychological definition and it is. I mean, that’s in my therapy, that’s where I learned that most of us when the family is sent in all directions a child feels that they are the reason that that happened.
Chris Yandek: Looking at your personal life, you know, why do you think you never thought you were in control? You were independent. You had your own career choices. You had stability. Why do you think that you never thought that you were an equal and you took some of the things you probably shouldn’t have?
Diahann Caroll: I think it’s very connected to what we discussed before, the being left at a very early age by my mother and father and I didn’t see them for a year. When my mother arrived and she took me home back to New York, my behavior then was very strange. I didn’t really go into all of that in the book because it’s ugly. My mother had to help me through that period. So there is an enormous emotional reaction to the fact and I’ll say it again that my mother and father chose to leave me. And I think unfortunately those, that kind of experience is very difficult for a child to dismiss or really understand.
Chris Yandek: And then you look back though and you say to yourself at some points in the book and you’re saying, what was I thinking? Why didn’t she leave? Why did she stick around?
Diahann Carroll: I think what we’ve already established is that a child that is left by the parent has a feeling of being unloved, unwanted, probably very, cuts the self-esteem down to the quick. And also, we’re also discussing the fact that that feeling of being not necessary and not loved enough it can follow you through your life and your behavior very often is a manifestation of those feelings about yourself and you operate out of them when you don’t even realize it because they’re so early in your life, so young that you accepted the fact that you were probably the demise of this relationship between your mother and your father which you were deprived of at a point then you’re never sure why you were deprived of it. So there is a scar and it’s horrendous and I don’t really know how different it really is today if a child is left. I think they’re scars that are there in the behavior of a 20 year old, a 40 year old, it’s very hard. I am watching my daughter dealing with almost the same problem.
Chris Yandek: Well, focusing on motherhood, there’s a story in the book about Marilyn Monroe and you were talking and she wanted to get pregnant as you said and she says to you, “You must be so happy.” Do you think she yearned for more purpose in her life?
Diahann Carroll: Yeah. I guess we all do. She came to the club more than once and I saw her on a few occasions. I was there the night she sang Happy Birthday to President Kennedy. I think many people in show business recognized that this was about to become a train wreck. You know, it was something that we were watching and unfortunately it happened.
Chris Yandek: Another legend in the business Frank Sinatra, there’s an amazing story in the book about him with an interaction with your daughter Suzanne. And what I would like to say to you, at that time and that period, what was it like being the woman around the Rat Pack going from different TV specials and other events, being around so many men that were just admired by so many people. What was it like for you?
Diahann Carroll: It was almost really like playing, the playground because they really were little boys and I was, you know, seduced by all that very young, very immature charm and I was basically a little girl. It was fun. We were in our playground. We were doing what we loved to do and we were all growing in our respective careers, and pursuing something we thought was important and very enjoyable. I loved being around them. There were times, there were times when it was definitely the time that one says thank you for a very lovely evening and you leave but funny and charming and caring was all really a wonderful time.
Chris Yandek: The ongoing party?
Diahann Carroll: You could stay as long as you wish. You wouldn’t go home. You could make your own bedtime.
Chris Yandek: Well, I want to ask, focusing back on the industry because you were at the beginning of the integrated period of Hollywood. How far has the industry come?
Diahann Carroll: Not very far. Not as far as we would like. I mean, there has been progress and I think we’ve seen a few people who’ve made tremendous, tremendous strides in this town. One of them is this young man Denzel Washington. We have recognized the fact that in this town, Hollywood has recognized the fact that it’s a situation that has to be dealt with. It must be dealt with on a very serious level. The black community has money now and the music business also presents a situation that is moneyed and so we’ve grown up and we know what to do with money. So I think we’re going to see a lot of changes in the next 10 years.
Chris Yandek: Speaking of the younger stars of today, who do you enjoy watching?
Diahann Carroll: I think Denzel’s work is exquisite. It’s a joy to watch him and he has mastered that camera. He knows how to use it, gets a performance out of himself. Whatever it is he undertakes he’s always very thorough.
Chris Yandek: I want to say there was one interesting point in the book. And you talk about what happened a few years ago with Don Imus and the Rutgers women and you say and obviously you say, people should be very careful with what they say. But this is the quote that stands out to me, you say, “Yet why not give people who have apologized profusely the benefit of the doubt.” Do you feel in some senses we have become too politically correct and oversensitive? I mean, don’t we all say things we regret in a sense?
Diahann Carroll: I think you and I are basically saying the same thing.
Chris Yandek: Yeah.
Diahann Carroll: I think so.
Chris Yandek: Yeah.
Diahann Carroll: And it is, I’m pleased that we have that point of view and that we’re relaxing a bit because racial comments are going to be around forever. I think whenever I stoop to do such a thing in company that I can rely upon to understand what that statement from me is all about and I understand what their statements are all about. I think it was very smart when Tiger Woods mentioned that he didn’t want anything changed at the country club. It’s not necessary that it needs to be changed because when Italians came in for the first time, there were jokes made. When Jews came in for the first time, there were jokes made.
That’s what we do. You know, we’re just not comfortable with each other after all these years that we don’t know how to make fun of something which we are not that familiar and we’ll outgrow it with time, but it happens to everybody. And Tiger, this enormously gifted human being and his special kind of dignity he recognized that when they made jokes about the menu for example, perhaps it should be changed and, you know, all the racial slurs. Are you familiar with that?
Chris Yandek: Yes.
Diahann Carroll: Yeah. I thought he handed it beautifully and hope we all learn how to do that.
Chris Yandek: From someone who had to deal with racial comments from co-workers, the crowd, others, what did you learn from those experiences besides to be strong and not let it get to you?
Diahann Carroll: Well, I always repeat what my mother told me when I was growing up that if someone has a problem with me because of the color of my skin that they’re ill. There is something wrong with that. There’s so many different colors and shapes and sizes of the face and the eyes and so many things all over the world that if you have a problem adjusting to something which you’re not familiar that they’re very sad because they don’t understand the world in which they live. They probably just understand the community.
Chris Yandek: A lot of amazing women have had the courage to be judged and critiqued on the ABC show Dancing with the Stars. Would you ever consider doing something fun and different like that?
Diahann Carroll: No.
Chris Yandek: Never?
Diahann Carroll: Absolutely, I haven’t seen Dancing with the Stars. Maybe five minutes of it at some point and I have many reactions to Dancing with the Stars. It’s a great way to use the time on the network without paying somebody who could do, you know an honorable, credible job of work. I don’t know what this thing is going on. Everything’s a competition.
Chris Yandek: Well, it’s not that everything’s a competition Diahann. It’s that everything’s a reality show.
Diahann Carroll: Yes, but everybody’s competing with each other.
Chris Yandek: There are shows that on television that are not necessary competition that are reality based.
Diahann Carroll: Well, this one you’re discussing.
Chris Yandek: Yea. I know. I know. I’m just saying in general, don’t you think television overall has become a reality show? And there’s less dramas for example?
Diahann Carroll: And on the reality shows, don’t those people have to come out the winner? You’re the winner.
Chris Yandek: Sometimes.
Diahann Carroll: I lose and you win.
Chris Yandek: Sometime, sometimes. So what do you still want to do the in this industry?
Diahann Carroll: What would I like to do?
Chris Yandek: Yeah.
Diahann Carroll: What I do. I am an actress and I am a singer.
Chris Yandek: Is there anything like in particular that you’d still like to do? Any kind of roles that you’d still like to play?
Diahann Carroll: Yes. I like those nice, meaty fat roles. I love that. And Claudine was the first opportunity really to get my teeth into something like that and I’d love to do that kind of role again.
Chris Yandek: So finally, again, the book is called The Legs are The Last to Go, Diahann Carroll thank you so much for joining me today, when it’s all said and done, how do you want to be remembered?
Diahann Carroll: As someone who loved her work and tried to do the best work that she possibly could and every time, every turn and tried to be the best mom she possibly could be in addition to acknowledging the work.
Chris Yandek: Thank you so much.
Diahann Carroll: It’s my pleasure. Thank you very much.