Actress-singer Diahann Carroll, a pioneer for Black  women on television, died of cancer on Oct. 4 at her Los Angeles home at the age of 84.

Carroll had battled breast cancer for many years. In 1998, she had surgery to remove a small cancerous growth, which had been detected during a routine annual medical examination. The growth was removed and she underwent six weeks of radiation treatment. As a breast cancer survivor, Carroll became an activist, encouraging women to receive annual checkups.

“Although it has been said many times, I want to alert every woman in the world that the best weapon against breast cancer is early detection,” she said at the time. “Annual checkups can save your life.”

Carroll’s daughter, journalist Suzanne Kay, said: “Diahann Carroll was a consummate entertainer and beloved icon whose career spanned nearly seven decades. She paved the way for many and never allowed anyone to limit or define her.”

The landmark comedy ‘Julia’

The Bronx-born performer is remembered for her groundbreaking role in “Julia,” which spanned more than 80 episodes from 1968-71, and helped raise the visibility of African-Americans on television. For her efforts, she earned a Golden Globe and received an Emmy nomination. Carroll starred on Broadway, in Hollywood musicals, and as a Las Vegas nightclub performer.

Carroll also starred in “Porgy and Bess” and “Carmen,” and played Dominique Devereaux on TV’s “Dynasty.” She reportedly lobbied producer Aaron Spelling for the role, recalling for People magazine in a 1984 interview, “I want to be wealthy and ruthless … I want to be the first Black b#tch on television.”

In 1990, she was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Diahann Carrroll was a dynamic entertainer whose TV credits include “A Different World” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” In Las Vegas, Carroll headlined with her fourth husband, Vic Damone, and was nominated for an Oscar for her role as a welfare mother in the 1974 drama “Claudine,” as well as earning an Tony Award in 1962 for Richard Rogers’ “No Strings.”

Carroll’s role on “Julia,” co-starring Lloyd Nolan, was that of a war-widowed nurse rearing a son. It was the first starring role of a self-sufficient and professional non-domestic Black woman, a departure from television depictions of Black women as domestic workers. This role would be credited for shattering stereotypes far ahead of “The Cosby Show” in the 1980s.

An upper-middle class Black woman

“The experience for television,” she said in a 2011 interview with the Archive of American Television, “[is that] everyone was on the line and everyone was scared because we were saying to the country ‘We’re going to present a very upper middle-class Black woman raising her child and her major concentration will not be about suffering in the ghetto. We don’t know if you’re going to buy it, but this is what we’re going to do: Take a different point of view of Blacks in the United States.’”

“Julia” was a remarkable show for its time and was popular among all viewing audiences. For the leggy beauty, “Julia” was Carroll’s opportunity to headline a scripted television show, a feat not accomplished since Ethel Waters starred in “Bulah” from 1950-1953. In that show, Waters portrayed the typical Black maid and it was not until Nichelle Nichols’ role as Lt. Uhura on “Star Trek” in 1966 did audiences witness more lines, more focus,  and a more serious acting application for a Black woman.

Carroll once told PBS that she embraced her lead in “Julia” because the character stood out as a self-sufficient and confident African-American woman.

In 2013, Carroll spoke with Ebony Magazine regarding her iconic status as a Black performer, and also about the racism she encountered early on whether it be in a night club, on the Broadway stage, or in television and film. At the time, she was being toasted as a pioneer of television for the PBS show “Pioneers of Television.” She spoke about the impact of “Julia” and how that television show would help to redefine the image of African-Americans on both the big and small screens. 

‘Happy to be a representative’

“I did feel it was something that I had not seen in my childhood, and that the star of a show being not only a woman, but a Black woman,” she said. “I was very happy to be that representative. I felt that I could do it, and I liked to only try to do jobs that I feel I can do. So once that was established—and we had the ratings and the approval of the American public—I felt very honored to have been able to present that the way we did at that time.”

Carroll also spoke to the effort of motion picture and television industries to increase  diversity and why it often takes so long for producers to craft a project showcasing persons of color—particularly women of color.

“There was a decline of Black women in lead roles after Julia,” she said. “I know that it has a lot to do with politics…it has a lot to do with money. What product is going to be most sellable all over the world? Listen, I can’t fault the industry for that. They’re in the business to make money; they’re not in the business to make themselves humanitarians. I wish that, but it’s just not true.”

Despite the popularity of “Julia,” the sitcom was met with early resignation during its planning stages and initial reception by some viewers and critics. There was criticism that held Carroll responsible for her character’s atypical affluence at a time when one-third of African-American families lived in poverty. The criticism reportedly stung Carroll and she was briefly hospitalized with stress-related symptoms. Carroll admitted years later that she felt the pressure to justify the dialog, the characters—and even the costumes—because “racial involvement was very minuscule on all television shows,” she said.

Critics and early disapproval

Months before its debut, the show had become a magnet for criticism. In April 1968, Robert Lewis Shayton of “Saturday Review” called it a “far, far cry from the bitter realities of Negro life in the urban ghetto.” Many naysayers felt that the suffering in the ghetto was “too acute” to be trivialized on a situation comedy, regardless if the character was a professional woman—and single parent—which was not too different from the reality of a broad spectrum of African-American women in the late 1960s through the early 1970s.

Carroll explained that the television landscape often revolves around where a Black person can —or cannot—“fit in,” noting that while it is difficult for Black men to land prime roles, it can be even more difficult for Black women to secure lead parts where their backstory is more fully explored and the character is not a one-dimensional stereotype relied on to satisfy the “comfort level” of a White audience. Carroll also spoke to her legacy as a groundbreaking actress and to her unexpected role as a political activist simply by applying her craft.

“I know that if one door is not opening, we must try a different door, and not sit there and complain,” she said. “Forget it and move on to something else. I also like that I see more young, Black Americans coming together to form their own corporations to make their own products. That extends to film and television production companies as well. It’s a difficult place to be…but it was difficult for [African-Americans] in the past. It would be great if more of us could become producers, and I think we’re trying to do that. You never stop. You never stop learning.”

The glamorous Dominique Devereaux

In the Aaron Spelling series “Dynasty,” Carroll embodied another atypical Black woman on television. She portrayed the sophisticated and catty Dominique Devereaux, Blake Carrington’s long-lost, illegitimate sister, whom she often dubbed as the “first Black bitch on prime-time television.”

“Very often it has been made light of,” she told the the Washington Post in 1985 in reference to her role on the popular prime-time soap opera. “I think it is important that we allow actors who represent the Third World to portray roles that are not necessarily sympathetic. I thought it would be interesting to create a new character. There are some things about Dominique that are perfectly likable, and there are other things that are completely self-centered. And I think she will remain that way.”

Carroll may have taken a page out of Devereaux’ playbook as she persevered in Hollywood with her long-refined combination of beauty, professionalism, class—and sass—as the character would turn heads with her extravagant taste in clothing and lavish lifestyle.

“Dominique brought a shot in the arm when ‘Dynasty’ needed it,” Carroll told TV Guide years ago. “I had a hell of a good time when I was there.”

Carroll often made headlines in her private life. She was briefly engaged to British talk-show host David Frost, but they never married.  Her third husband, Robert A DeLeon, was much younger than she, but together they launched SuMo production company which yielded her well-received CBS variety series “The Diahann Carroll Show” in 1976.

Decades later in 2013, Carroll was selected to return to the Broadway stage opposite Denzel Washington in Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” but illness forced her to drop out of the production during rehearsals. That year, she revived her comedic chops in Craig Robinson’s “Peeples” with Kerry Washington, playing well-to-do matriarch Nana Peeples.

Diahann Carroll is survived by a daughter, who is a journalist and producer, and two grandchildren.