Tuesday, October 22, 2019

I Remember Diahann Carroll

The news of the passing of Diahann Carroll caught me off guard.
I'd known the black super star had been in declining health in recent years but I was astonished she was 84 at her passing --I always thought she was a bright, vibrant personality who could do it all --as the star of the pioneering sitcom Julia and later the elegant seductress of Dynasty.
I first interviewed Carroll when she was preparing toped as the star of the Canadian production of Sunset Boulevard in 1984. I later followed with several telephone conversations.
Here are highlights of our conversation:
JB: You are about to come the first black Norma Desmond. How does that  feel?
DC: Oh, I' m always breaking the rules, I guess.
JB: You also starred in the first sitcom to star a young black woman who wasn't a domestic --Julia which ran on NBC for three seasons which began in 1968.
DC: The first season we were up against Red Skelton on CBS and It Takes A Thief on NBC so the competition was always fierce. We stayed there for three seasons --in the third season we knocked out Red and went up against CBS's Her Haw. It was deemed revolutionary in its day and the only way I got through it was with the support of veterans Lloyd Noland and Lureen Tuttle. We had great guests stars --veterans Ezra Stone and Don Ameche  not only acted they also directed episodes. We were making a big statement of equality --I played the widow of a Vietnam veteran. Not a great show but a landmark nevertheless.
JB: How did you get started?
DC: Well, I was born in the Bronx, daddy was a subway conductor. I grew up wanting to be a singer and my parents reluctantly agreed that I could try but if over time I couldn't do it then I'd finish my university degree in sociology.
JB: Then you won a TV talent show on Chance Of A Lifetime?
DC: Yes, that was so long ago it was on the old DuMont network. I was also on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts on CBS. I sang at the Latin Quarter and then in 1954 I was signed for the musical Carmen Jones. Otto Preminger was the director and the stars were Harry Belafonte and the wonderful Dorothy Dandridge, Otto screamed a lot and Dorothy screamed right back at him. You have to remember there was fear among movie producers about highlighting black females. Dorothy's career was tragically short because she just couldn't get any traction and it preyed on her.
JB: Later on you were also in Porgy And Bess starring Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr., Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier. I've never seen this movie but I'm told your voice was dubbed.
DC: I was told my voice was tools and I was dubbed. I thought it was crazy. Qe started rehearsals with the great director Rouben Mamoulian who had directed the stage original. Then a gigantic fire resulted in destruction of all the huge sets on the Goldwyn lot.  We started over with --you guessed it --Otto Preminger who yelled even louder. I wasn't a fan of the finished product.  And these days the Gershwin estate won't permit it to be shown or so I'm told.
JB: I first saw you singing at the Imperial Room of the Royal York hotel  circa 1971 and realized you possessed one of the greatest voices. I had to review and interview such stars as Julie London and Peggy Lee who had the talent to just sing without much amplification.
DC: I loved singing in those clubs. I was told when Dorothy came to sing at the Imperial Room she asked "Where am I staying" and became tearful when told she'd have the penthouse suite.
JB: In fact she dropped to her knees and kissed the floor. In the American hotel supper clubs she had to stay at a black residence e such was the segregation of the times. But I'm wondering why you think the age of the luxury supper clubs has passed.
DC: In America it's scary. You have to dress up, go downtown after dark and there's violence everywhere. And some of the newer singers just don't have the skills to sing in such an intimate setting and hold the audience. They rely on amplification and just plain singing is foreign to them.
JB: I've listened to the cast album of No Strings, the brilliant 1962 Richard Rodgers, starring Richard Kiley and you in great voice. And I wonder why it never became a movie.
DC: They tried. Ray Star
 bought the rights but an interracial love story?No way! Ray tried to change the girl into a Eurasian and announced Nancy Kwan as the new lead. I felt devastated. But there was such a storm of controversy among the black community that he backed off and the project was shelved.
JB: But you did some movies, prominent ones.
DC:Paris Blues (1961) was a cute thing set in the jazz world starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and I was aired with Sidney Poitier who I almost married --what a mistake that would have been. Then Old Otto phoned me and signed me for Hurry, Sundown which starred Michael Caine and Jane Fonda. We shot in St. Francisville county, Louisians, home of the KKK. I received death threats, so did other cast members. It was all very scary, much more interesting than the actual ploy.
You always made TV acting a part of your career.
DC: I did them all but always as a guest star, never the series star.
JB: Tell me the story of joining Dynasty in 1984.
DC: Esther Shapiro who created the soap told me she had always been aware there was no prominent African American star.I told her I'd love to join but as an upscale character. And she came up Dominique who is half sister  to Blake played so well by John Forsythe.  The clothes were fantastic but are sometimes uncomfortable because they are so bizarre. I wondered what Joan Collins would make of all this. But she is a professional, she understands a series needs new characters to continue. And she knows everything about camera lenses, lighting. I loved playing this black bitch and I also got to co-star on seven episodes of the spinoff series The Colbys. And it made mr a name with all the younger audience who didn't know about Julia.
JB: You then joined the cast of Lonesome Dove in 1994 shot in Alberta.
DC: It told the true story of the American west. We're usually written out of the official story and its important to keep the record straight.
JB: And now you're a black Norma Desmond. I remember catching Diana Sands in Saint Joan and after a few moments the fact she was black seemed irrelevant --she was such a force.
DC: We're still in rehearsals. It's a new theatre the Ford way out in suburban Toronto. I saw the movie and I also saw a clip from the Tonight show where Gloria Swanson sang a so g from a musical version that never got fully produced. So far I'm walking up those d-d stairs so often I wonder if I'll survive. What I've been through in my career I think I'm finally ready to play this one, it has one of the greatest roles ever written for a woman.
NOTE: After her triumph in Sunset Boulevard Carroll returned to TV series work --she was on 25 episodes of White Collar (2009-14), and seven episodes of Grey's Anatomy (2006-10).
DIANNE CARROLL DIED ON ()()()(). She was 84.

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