There was so much that Diahann Carroll achieved in her life and career, as was widely reflected on following news of her recent death, but what needs to be emphasized is how groundbreaking she was in her achievements, particularly early on. For instance, in 1962 she became the first black actress to win the Best Actress Tony Award, in her case for the Broadway musical No Strings. Then, perhaps more importantly given the audience she reached on a weekly basis, from 1968 to 1971 she was the first black actress to star in her own television series and to portray a character who wasn’t a stereotypical one.
The show was the Classic TV comedy Julia, which saw her portraying a widow (her husband was a pilot shot down in Vietnam) raising a son (Corey, played by Marc Copage) alone. She’s hired as a nurse in the office of a doctor at a large aerospace company. In its own way, it was a show that seemed to allow Diahann to shatter the glass ceiling for other black women.
“Absolutely not,” she differed to Closer in an exclusive interview. “I had a wonderful writer, Hal Kanter, and he was thrilled to be doing this. He knew more than I understood at that time how important it was in the television industry to move along with these ideas. Coming into the world of television through Hal Kanter and several other people who were very much in my corner and very helpful, Julia was introduced in the magnificent way it should have been introduced. With 20th Century Fox and NBC I felt as though I had died and gone to heaven. It was just lovely. Everyone was so dedicated to making this something quite special.”
But not so special, she emphasized, that Diahann or the show could be credited with paving the way for people like Phylicia Rashad on The Cosby Show or Debbie Allen, her sister, who a part of the spinoff to that show, A Different World.
“I think there were a group of us who were forging the hood,” she noted. “At that time, I did not understand and Hal told me, ‘You’ll see what this is going to do.’ He was very proud and so was I. But the environment in which I was growing up also included other black performers, actresses, actors … everything. I knew it was going to be important, but it took a while for me to understand just how important and I’m very proud of it. When I see ‘her’ running around in her little hat and uniform, she’s adorable.”
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