WASHINGTON – Diahann Carroll, at 81, welcomed a visitor to her “fabulous” suite at Washington’s Willard Intercontinental Hotel – marble bathroom, dining table for eight, stunning views of the city. After a busy day, she had dressed down for company, in a plush bathrobe, gold slippers and round sunglasses.
She is glamorous in that old Hollywood way but also kind, first asking about you from behind those formidable shades. Then she sat and demurely crossed her legs, bringing to mind a phrase that has become a personal mantra in her ninth decade: “The legs are the last to go.”
Carroll mentioned that she was celebrating a birthday in a few days but laughed at herself when she couldn’t remember quite how old she will be.
“Aging,” she said, tossing her honey-colored hair, “is a full-time job.”
As a young woman and into her middle years, Carroll had a career of firsts. The first black actress to win a Tony, for the 1962 musical “No Strings,” in which her fashion-model character was involved in an interracial romance. The star of “Julia,” the first sitcom centered on a black character who was not a servant – she played a widowed nurse and mother – for which she won a 1969 Golden Globe and was the first black actress nominated for a comedic-lead Emmy.
Then in 1984 came a star turn on “Dynasty” as Dominique Deveraux, an elegant songstress and businesswoman whom Carroll declared at the time would be television’s “first black bitch.” She instructed the prime-time soap’s writers to “just pretend that I’m a white male ... and write the character from there.” And there, yet another breakthrough, America getting to watch a black woman complaining about the off-brand caviar she had been served.
More than three decades later, the feisty Deveraux still pops up in Internet memes, bedecked in sequins, her masterful side-eye lending silent commentary to current events.
She left the show in 1987, in her early 50s. And then? Well, you know how it goes for an actress. The juicy roles dry up. The interest wanes. For her part, Carroll is in the period of life when one reflects on legacy.
Her mission in Washington was to promote a new documentary film project, “Sullivision: Ed Sullivan and the Struggle for Civil Rights,” a look at the legendary mid-century variety show host and the groundbreaking African-American artists who shared his stage at a time when images of blacks on television were rare.
Carroll was a guest on the show nine times, and it bolstered her career, much as it did for Harry Belafonte, Diana Ross, Louis Armstrong, Stevie Wonder, Richard Pryor and many more. Interviewed for the film, Belafonte credits Sullivan with helping to shift American culture and prepare the nation for the coming civil rights movement by exposing his viewers to a broad range of black artists.
Carroll’s daughter, Suzanne Kay, is co-producing the not-yet-completed film with Sullivan’s granddaughter, Margo Speciale, and Carroll joined the filmmakers on a panel Saturday at the 5th annual March on Washington Film Festival to discuss it.
On the panel, Carroll seemed overcome with a mother’s pride. She kissed her daughter on the cheek and declared the work she is doing on the film, “just wonderful.”
Later, from her hotel suite, Carroll again made clear that she was here because she wants to help her daughter. “I’m just mom. This is her work and I must respect it,” she said with determination.
In other words: Carroll did not want to steal Kay’s spotlight. In separate conversations, both she and her daughter alluded to the strains that her fame placed on their relationship. Carroll was married four times and had a few well-publicized affairs, including one early in her career with Sidney Poitier. The romances, travel and intensity of Carroll’s trailblazing career often left Kay, her only child, to be raised by others. But in recent years, they have grown closer.
And the mother is clearly touched by her daughter’s interest in the struggles she and her peers faced early in their careers – an era when the white British singer Petula Clark faced a sponsor backlash for a TV special in which she affectionately touched Belafonte’s arm.
Sullivan, who has gone down in history for introducing Elvis Presley and the Beatles to mass audiences, also received threatening letters from irate white viewers who disliked the way he featured black artists. And Carroll was not invited to attend a cast party for “No Strings” – the musical she starred in – because the party’s hostess was comfortable with her children encountering African Americans as servants but not as glamorous, fur-wearing starlets.
Some of the actors of Carroll’s generation remain busy, such as Cicely Tyson, 92, who plays Viola Davis’ mother on the ABC hit “How To Get Away With Murder.” Carroll, though, has opted for a different pace. She was slated to play the role of Mama in a 2014 Broadway revival of “Raisin in the Sun” but dropped out because the rehearsal and performance schedule was too wearying. She hilariously noted in a PBS interview a few years back that the health-conscious Tyson thrives on vegetable juices but “I love chardonnay.”
“I had to get clear that I’m entitled to have a period of time when I can say, ‘I don’t think I want to do that,’” she said shortly before showing her visitor out. “I hope no one feels that I’m being (difficult), but I do know that I’ve been working my whole life.”
She is content now to support her daughter’s work – though she intends, as always, to look fabulous while doing it.