(b. 17 July 1935 in New York City), regarded as one of the United States' most talented singers and actresses, a pioneer for blacks in the entertainment business in 1960s, and the first African-American woman to have her own weekly television series.
Born Carol Diann Johnson, Carroll is the elder of two daughters of John Johnson, a subway conductor, and Mabel Faulk, a nurse. She was raised in Harlem and the Bronx in New York City. Carroll began singing at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church at the age of six. While still attending the High School of Music and Art, she worked in nightclubs and auditioned as "Diahann Carroll" on the television show Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. After finishing high school Carroll enrolled at New York University, majoring in psychology. In 1954 she won a singing contest on television and came to prominence in Carmen Jones. Carroll left New York University that same year to star in House of Flowers, for which she was nominated for a Tony Award. In September 1956 Carroll married the casting director of the House of Flowers, Monte Kay; they had one daughter. In 1959 she costarred in Porgy and Bess with the actor Sidney Poitier, with whom she fell in love and began an affair.
In the early 1960s Carroll continued to sing and play supporting roles in films. In 1961 she made two films, Paris Blues (with Poitier) and Goodbye Again. In the early 1960s she also became a regular guest on the Tonight Show, hosted by Jack Paar and airing on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC).
Having seen Carroll in House of Flowers and impressed by her talents, Richard Rodgers, one of the greatest writers in American musical theater, cast Carroll in the starring role of the Broadway musical No Strings in 1961. Carroll played Barbara Woodruff, a fashion model involved in an interracial romance. Her performance ran for more than a year, and she won (with another actress) the coveted Tony Award in 1962 for best female performance in a musical. Despite the disappointment of not being cast in the movie version of the play, Carroll was undaunted in her pursuit of success and turned her attention to film. In 1962 No Strings finished its New York run and began a nationwide tour, which Carroll joined.
Carroll left the cast of No Strings when she became engaged to Poitier, but they broke off the relationship several months later. In 1966, between her acting roles, Carroll resumed her nightclub singing. She played at the Persian Room at the Plaza Hotel in New York City twice a year and often performed in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas. By the mid-1960s she was also a frequent guest on a number of television shows, including the Danny Kaye Show, the Carol Burnett Show, Hollywood Palace, and specials with Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. She appeared in the movie drama Hurry Sundown with Jane Fonda in 1967 and the crime caper The Split in 1968.
Although Carroll had previously appeared on a number of shows, television was not a major aspect of her career. However, in 1968 she left for Beverly Hills to star in Julia, and in doing so became the first African American to star in a weekly television situation comedy. Carroll played Julia Baker, a middle-class Vietnam War widow raising her five-year-old son. The success of Julia was remarkable, and it helped change the image of black Americans on television, paving the way for such later hits as the Cosby Show. Carroll said in her autobiography: "It was such a wonderful feeling to know that I was accepted into millions of homes every Tuesday." Carroll received an Emmy nomination and won a Golden Globe for the best newcomer in television for her role in Julia in 1968.
There were, however, some unexpected problems. The popular show, produced by Hal Kanter, was an attempt to forward the cause of mutual understanding in the highly charged, racially tense atmosphere of the time. Ironically, the popularity of the show brought heightened exposure for Carroll and pressured her to respond to the racial tensions that had arisen in the wake of the assassination of the civil rights leader the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Carroll was stung by criticism of the authenticity of Julia's single motherhood, her affluent lifestyle, and the lack of a strong male role model. In addition, the white press expected Carroll to act as a spokesperson for black America. The show was acknowledged by many as breakthrough and seen by others as a betrayal.
Although Julia was controversial, the media storm did not affect the ratings. The show was first aired in September 1968, and by October it had become the highest rated show on the air. The show gained considerable attention, but the change in Carroll's image from glamorous to maternal later diluted her nightclub image. After playing the role of a nurse on television, Carroll discovered that her nightclub career had withered, as fans replaced their old image of the glamorous singer with a new one. In an effort to regain an audience, Carroll began to make her shows more elaborate. In 1970, when the time came for Carroll to renew her contract, she requested to be released from Julia.
In 1972 Carroll returned to singing, and on 21 February 1973 she married her second husband, Freddie Glusman. She starred in the feature film Claudine (1974), for which she received an Oscar nomination. In 1976 she married Robert Deleon, who later died in a car crash. Carroll hosted her own show, starred in television movies such as Roots, the Next Generations (1979) and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1979). She also starred in the stage version of Agnes of God (1982), published her autobiography (1986), and played the role of Dominique Deveraux in the popular television series Dynasty (1984 – 1987). In January 1987 she married the singer Vic Damone (they divorced in 1996), and in 1989 she appeared on the television series A Different World and Dead of Night. Carroll was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1994, but she overcame the disease with an aggressive treatment program. In 1996–1997 she appeared in Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Sunset Boulevard, and in 1997 she launched her own clothing line.
Carroll has received numerous awards and honors. She was inducted into the Black Filmmaker's Hall of Fame in 1976 and was honored as the best actress at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Eighth Annual Image Awards, also in 1976. She has been featured at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Carroll's life is a story of triumph and perseverance. She aspired beyond her childhood Harlem, but she found herself in an industry whose doors opened only slowly for African Americans. While building her career, Carroll confronted and fought racism and triumphed over considerable obstacles to become an accomplished artist.
A clipping file on Carroll is in the Billy Rose Theatre Collection, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, New York City. Carroll's autobiography, Diahann! An Autobiography (1986), written with Ross Firestone, provides intimate details of her personal life and career. Donald Bogle, Blacks in American Film and Television: An Encyclopedia (1988), contains critical reviews of Carroll's major films plus a brief but informative biographical sketch. For more biographical information see "Diahann Carroll Talks about Her Life, Love, and Career in a Revealing Interview," Jet (23 Dec. 1985), and "Diahann Carroll and Vic Damone: New Marriage and New Career on Stage," Jet (26 Jan. 1987).