When people speak of the great ladies of television history – those pioneers who did so much either on camera or behind the scenes (or both) to advance women through the decades, and whose work continues to entertain us to this day -- the usual names come immediately to mind: Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Burnett, Marlo Thomas, Bea Arthur, Valerie Harper. Surely, they all deserve the recognition they continue to receive as trailblazers who paved the way for Roseanne Barr, Candice Bergen, Tina Fey and so many more to come. We simply didn’t see women like the characters they portrayed on television until they stepped up and created them, in tandem with other strong women and forward-thinking men behind the scenes. Oddly, though, a woman who very much belongs on that list rarely seemed to be included: actress and singer Diahann Carroll.
Carroll's long and distinguished career in entertainment included two TV milestones – the lead role in the 1968-71 sitcom Julia (the first comedy to feature an African American woman in the lead role) and a three-season gig on the classic primetime serial Dynasty (plus a handful of guest shots on spin-off The Colbys) as the glamorous and intimidating Dominique Devereaux (pictured at top), whom Carroll often fondly referred to as “the first black bitch on television.”
Those were Carroll’s big television credits, but more recently she had a recurring role on the delightful USA Network caper dramedy White Collar. Throughout, she brought the kind of class and style to any program she appeared on that we rarely see today. (Highlights of her work on Dynasty often populate one of my favorite Instagram feeds, @Carrington_Colby.)
Dynasty was the No. 1 show on television in 1984 when Carroll was added to the cast, which may seem insignificant now, but African American characters in glamourous leading roles were largely absent from the great primetime soap operas of the decade. Dominique was front and center from the moment she arrived, beginning with the then-startling revelation that she was the half-sister of billionaire businessman Blake Carrington (John Forsythe). She had a catfight with Alexis (Joan Collins), who was famous for such behavior, and her character was caught in the drama of the legendary season-five cliffhanger finale, affectionately known to fans as the Moldavian massacre. (Terrorists shot at most of the characters on the canvas, who had assembled for a wedding, and while everyone was bloodied, only two lesser characters were killed off. Dominique lived to scheme and manipulate for years to come.)
If Dynasty was flashy and exciting and impossible to overlook, Julia was a quiet victory of sorts, a somewhat humble little comedy about a single mom working as a nurse. The lead character was a widow; her husband, an Army captain, had been killed in Vietnam. I don’t remember much about the show, except that it was not issue-driven, which seemed to upset some people, even though the other sitcoms of the era told similarly simple, funny stories the entire family could enjoy. (This was before Norman Lear brought us All in the Family and the rest of his groundbreaking sitcoms and changed television as it had been known.) Also, and weirdly for the time, Julia did not have a laugh track.
My colleague Steve Gidlow interviewed Carroll at her home in West Hollywood a few years ago. When he asked her about Julia (the series, not the doll) she replied, “It was wonderful. I didn't know how wonderful it was until much later, but having spent all that time out here in this town I was very proud that NBC and 20th Century Fox chose this wonderful property, which was originally called Mama’s Man. I was in New York when they sent it to me and I said, ‘I never in my lifetime will I do anything called Mama’s Man.’ But the reception to that piece was extraordinary. It was lovely to be a part of that and looking back it brings me just as much if not more joy.”
She also had fond memories of Dynasty. “I remember calling my manager and saying this is a wonderful show, but where the hell are the Black people?” she told Gidlow. “He said that was funny because one of the producers had just come back from New York where I had done a play called Agnes of God, which she saw. He was in the process of saying to [Dynasty executive producer] Aaron Spelling how he’d seen this lady in New York, while I was in the process of saying let's find a way to approach this TV show. In a way it was kismet. But it was lovely.”
As for working with Dynasty stars John Forsythe, Linda Evans and Joan Collins -- arguably three of the four biggest TV stars of the day (the other being Larry Hagman of Dallas), Carroll recalled, “We were together every day, and you find out a great deal about each other. It was like a marriage with four people. We were all very different, but we found areas where we were all very helpful to each other. I wish I'd been a little more worldly back then, as I would've taken more advantage of it. John was quite the gentleman, really nice to be around. Joan was fun. Linda was an outdoors country girl. I was New York City born and raised. We were all so different, but that was good.”
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