Legendary actress, singer and style icon Diahann Carroll died on Friday at her home in Los Angeles after a long bout with cancer. She was 84 years old.
Carroll’s longtime manager, Ronni Lynn Hart, confirmed her death to NPR.
In her illustrious career, Carroll won a Tony Award and was nominated for an Oscar. But she is perhaps best known for making television history when she starred as the titular character on the NBC sitcom Julia, which debuted in 1968.
She’s widely seen as the first black actress to appear in a lead role depicting a non-stereotypical character on television. Carroll portrayed Julia Baker, a widowed mother raising a young son.
In a 2008 interview with NPR’s News & Notes, Carroll said she was “very proud” of that role.
“I look back with great pride,” Carroll told host Farai Chideya.
“We’ve had major, major problems when we went on the air that I think were expressed by both communities, black and white. And we survived,” Carroll said, adding: “I looked at it from time to time. And the quality is there, it’s charming. And I thought the casting was excellent. So as a product, I think it’s a good product. I’m happy to be there.”
In that same interview, Carroll was asked if she took the role knowing how many would see her as a role model.
“No. No, I’ve never done that. I took it because of the work,” Carroll said. “I took it because I liked the work. I think that’s the way an artist should select a part.”
Prior to that role, Carroll had made her name as a nightclub performer. She later would conquer Broadway and Hollywood in musicals like Carmen Jones and Porgy & Bess.
In the 1980s, she portrayed the role of Dominique Deveraux on the primetime soap opera Dynasty.
Diahann Carroll was born Carol Diann Johnson in New York City in 1935. She took piano lessons regularly as a child and first began singing around age 6, as a member of the Tiny Tots choir in Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church.
As a teenager she became interested in fashion and at age 14, she sent a picture of herself to the fashion editor at Ebony. She later was one of four teenage girls to win a modeling assignment for Johnson Publishing, Ebony’s parent company.
By the late 1950s, Carroll’s acting career was on the rise. In 1959 she played the role of Clara in a film adaptation of Porgy and Bess starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge.
In 1962 she starred in No Strings, a Broadway musical where Carroll played a fashion model in Paris, a role for which she became the first African-American woman to win a lead actress Tony Award. In 1975 she was nominated for an Oscar for her role in a film called Claudine, which cast her as a woman struggling to raise six children in Harlem.
She appeared in various roles in television and film throughout the years, including 1997’s Eve’s Bayou, and recurring roles on the series Soul Food and Grey’s Anatomy.