By Eleanor Ringel Cater
In the 1960s, TV gave us witches and genies and castaways and filthy rich hillbillies.
It did not give us a believable African-American character in a leading role, leading a regular life.
Until, that is, 1965, when Bill Cosby was cast opposite Robert Culp in “I Spy.”
Granted globe-trotting spies posing as a tennis champ (Culp) and his coach (Cosby) wasn’t exactly a “regular life,” but there had been so little in the way of a black presence on television, outside of variety shows, that the series seemed a godsend.
And then, in 1968, there was “Julia,” starring Diahann Carroll as a professional woman – a nurse and a single mom (Vietnam made her a widow). She worked for a curmudgeonly doctor who asked in the show’s first episode, “Have you always been a Negro, or are you just trying to be fashionable.”
It’s a bit labored now, the line, but at the time it was considered breezy, perhaps even audacious. And “Julia,” in its own un-audacious way, managed to break the color line weekly until 1971. Yes, in retrospect, it may sound pathetically mild, but times were different. And while Neil Armstrong was making one small step for man, Diahann Carroll was making a giant leap for African-American women.
Carroll, who died last week of breast cancer at age 84, began as a gifted singer. In 1954, at age 19, she had a couple of breakthrough roles. She was cast in a small part in Otto Preminger’s “Carmen Jones,” starring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte. And she made her Broadway debut in the Harold Arlen-Truman Capote musical, “House of Flowers.”
That’s when Richard Rodgers saw her and determined that, one way or other, he was going to cast her in one of his shows. His first idea was to put her in “Flower Drum Song,” which would’ve translated into a true trivia gem (What African-American actress appeared on Broadway as an Asian-American?) Or conversely, it could’ve been a major cultural moment: name the first African-American to be cast on Broadway in a nonblack role?
Rodgers did come through for her in 1962, writing “No Strings,” in which she and Richard Kiley (“Man of La Mancha”) shared an interracial romance in Paris. The show wasn’t a hit, but Carroll was. She won a Tony.
Actually, pre-“No Strings,” she’d appeared in “Porgy and Bess,” with Sidney Poitier, with whom she began a long affair that, reportedly, broke up his marriage. The two were re-teamed on screen in “Paris Blues,” co-starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
Then came “Julia” which, to a kid like me, seemed everything right about Civil Rights.
Decades later, I realized I was wrong. Or at best, naïve. Yes, “Julia” was a fine solution for a liberal-minded white teen. And, it was important in that it put a black face out there with all the white ones and asked we not see her as The Other.
But as Shakespeare might have said, time was out of joint for the story of a self-composed, beautifully dressed African-American nurse. “Julia” was surrounded by the Black Panthers, Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. And though Carroll always publicly defended the show – “We’re doing a comedy. Let us do a comedy” – she also acknowledged, in an interview with TV Guide, “At the moment, we’re presenting the white Negro. And he (sic) has very little Negro-ness.”
That changed quite a bit when she took on the gritty title role in 1974’s “Claudine.” Carroll played a welfare mother of six who falls for a garbage collector played by James Earl Jones (yes, Luke Skywalker’s daddy). The performance earned her an Oscar nomination, but not many more big-screen roles. Instead, she returned to television, most notably in the glam prime-time soap, “Dynasty,” in which she played the scheming and quite wealthy Dominique Deveraux.
Diahann Carroll came along at a very difficult time in America’s ever-present racial drama. Yet she negotiated this minefield with admirable talent and grace. Perhaps director Ava DuVernay put it best. Writing on Twitter, she said, “Diahann Carroll walked this earth for 84 years and broke ground with every footstep. An icon. One of the all-time greats. She blazed trails through dense forests and elegantly left diamonds along the path for the rest of us to follow.”
Say Amen, somebody.