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Interview with Diahann Carroll

ABILITY Magazine Archives in shiny silver and purple letters.

Interview with Diahann Carroll with Chet Cooper and Jeffrey Lane: Circa 2000

Intro by Bob Reed

In the entertainment field the dream of every performer is to have his or her work recognized with a nomination for a major award. For movie actors the biggest prize is the Academy Award, otherwise known as the Oscar; for television, it’s the Emmy; to the stars of the Broadway theater, the Antoinette Perry–or Tony–Award is as good as it gets; and for singers, the Grammy is the recording industry’s top prize. Once an artist has attained such recognition, the entertainment media makes it a practice in their articles to insert–choose one–“Oscar-nominee,” “Emmy-nominee,” “Tony-nominee” or “Grammy-nominee”–in front of that person’s name.

Which presents a dilemma in the case of Diahann Carroll.

It seems Miss Carroll has been nominated for all these awards in her long and storied show business career. She was nominated for, and won the Best Actress Tony for her work in “No Strings,” a Broadway musical production created as a starring vehicle for her by the legendary Richard Rodgers. However, she is probably best known by the public for her television roles in the ground-breaking situation comedy “Julia” and the popular, prime-time soap opera “Dynasty.” The former, which first aired in 1968, was the first series ever to star a black actress as the central character. Miss Carroll received an Emmy nomination–her second–for her portrayal of Julia, a nurse and widowed mother. Previously, she had earned that accolade in 1963 for a dramatic role in the drama”Naked City.” Her third nomination came in 1989 for the NBC comedy series “A Different World” and her fourth for the 1998 Showtime Family Special “The Sweetest Girl.”

Diahann Carroll with Marlon Brando, Fred Astaire, Barbra Streisand, President John F. Kennedy
Diahann Carroll with Marlon Brando, Fred Astaire, Barbra Streisand, President John F. Kennedy

Miss Carroll’s feature film work includes “Claudine,” which earned her a Best Actress Academy Award nomination in 1974, “Paris Blues,” “Carmen Jones,” “Hurry Sundown,” “The Split,” and “Porgy And Bess.” Recent movie credits are the Robert Townsend-directed “The Five Heartbeats” and “Eve’s Bayou,” the highest grossing independent film of 1997. She also received critical acclaim for her starring turn in the 1999 CBS-TV movie “Having Our Say,” where her character Sadie Delaney ages to 107; and played major supporting roles this year in Lifetime’s “The Courage to Love” and in the CBS mini-series “Sally Hemmings: An American Scandal.” Theatrical credits include lead roles in the Broadway hits “House of Flowers” and “Agnes of God,” the Los Angeles production of “Love Letters” and as Norma Desmond in the Toronto premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s international phenomonen “Sunset Boulevard.” Her current album “The Time of My Life” features many show stopping broadway tunes.

Diahann Carroll’s high-flying entertainment odyssey has continued virtually unabated for 47 years, but in 1997 a health crisis threatened not only to end that career, but also her life. During a regular physical examination, a mammogram found a small tumor less than one centimeter in diameter in one of her breasts. The tumor proved to be malignant, and a lumpectomy was performed. Miss Carroll then opted for radiation treatments to make certain all cancerous cells were destroyed.

Unlike many high profile women, Miss Carroll decided to go public immediately with the news of the tumor and the treatment that followed. Friends and family rallied to support her, and she received cards of encouragement from fans around the world. Frequent checkups over the last three years have shown no indication of the cancer’s return.

Today, Miss Carroll maintains a strict diet and exercise regimen, and remains in demand for film, stage and concert performances. She has also become a national spokesperson for breast cancer awareness, appearing at many different types of venues to help get the word out about the importance of mammograms.

When ABILITY Publisher Chet Cooper was escorted into Miss Carroll’s high rise residence in Beverly Hills by her personal assistant he was immediately struck by the tasteful beauty of the decor, which he describes as “right out of Architectural Digest.” He was led to a table on the outdoor patio where the panoramic view of the surrounding mountains nearly took his breath away. Looking far down at the winding streets of Beverly Hills made Mr. Cooper–who is mildly afflicted with vertigo–a little dizzy, a condition that was only compounded by the appearance of the stunning Miss Carroll, trim and eternally youthful in an elegant, form-fitting dressing gown. The duo was joined by Miss Carroll’s neighbor, publicist Jeffrey Lane.

Chet Cooper: Can you tell me what you are working on right now?

Diahann Carroll: [Laughs] Hmmm. . . Let me see. . .which hat am I going to put on now? I’m about to do a film for NBC. Actually there are two scripts at the moment that are being discussed, but I think it will be with NBC. I’m working on my merchandising business, which is a whole new way of life for me, and I’m enjoying it very much. Tomorrow I take off for some meetings having to do with my merchandising business. We are in the process of meeting people about this book I’m (writing). I’ve been working on it for over two years.

Diahann Carroll and Henry Belafonte
Diahann Carroll and Henry Belafonte

CC: In the book, is the subject your life?

DC: [raises right hand]

CC: Is it about your right hand?

DC: [Laughs]About my right hand. Nothing about my left hand!

CC: That will be the sequel.

DC: That’s right. Because if I had any knowledge about what my left hand was doing I would have lived an entirely different life. [laughs] I think (the book) is necessary. I hope that there are no persons that would want to think ill of me in any direction or any behavior. I still believe (it is important) to keep the record straight as to what the last 47 years have meant. I’ve spent about that amount of time trying to tell the public that there was purpose in. . .my business, my career and the roller coaster ride. . .how the people I associated with worked together. There are many different impressions about a woman of my color and my background who began in the fifties, and how she developed. So, obviously I’m the only one that can really tell the story.

CC: I was trying to figure out how in this interview I could get little pieces of this great history that you have–which a lot of people don’t realize–and the book will help I’m sure.

DC: Yeah, but that’s why I think it is necessary. You know I figure young people would say, “Oh yes, that’s right–Dynasty!” How one came upon Dynasty in the eighties is really more of a highlight than (being on) Dynasty. So, I’d like to clarify that.

CC: Can you tell me about your business?

DC: I have a line of clothing at J.C. Penney’s. . .and I’m lucky to be affiliated. At the moment the things that we are most involved with are handbags, scarves, eyewear, belts. . . some kinds of jewelry. It’s very interesting and it’s not difficult for me because I’ve always been involved in (fashion).

CC: Do you help to design?

DC: Usually the designs are given to me and then there are corrections and ideas placed on the drawing that has been submitted. Then there are telephone conversations, and sometimes it requires a trip. Either the designers will come here or I’ll go to New York, or to far off places like Atlantic City [laughs]–or wherever it is most agreeable–so that we can all meet in one area to discuss what we want to do.

CC: Has the business been successful?

DC: Very. We’ve had a long run, quite frankly, and in this kind of business there are many players and the playing field changes often. You have to keep your sanity as well as know how to distance yourself from it while still holding onto the reins tightly. That is a very difficult thing to do, but I’m learning.

CC: Is it your company? Or do you partner?

DC: No, it’s my company.

CC: Are you involved in the actual marketing of the products?

DC: Absolutely. Each segment of the company has its own marketing expert. It requires my getting to know the marketer and what they think of the product. . .what they think of me. . .how I agree or disagree. . .what information I may have that would help all of us. It’s an exchange of ideas and information.

CC: Christopher Reeve, who we’ve had in the magazine in the past, did something with J.C. Penney’s. I don’t remember exactly how that connection worked but they went through another company that produced ties. A percentage of the revenues from the sale of those ties–they were called the “Christopher Reeve Collection”–went back to his foundation for spinal cord research. Have you looked into anything like that?

DC: No, we’re not there yet.

JL: Can you tell him more about your new movie?

DC: It is a story of Natalie Cole. Natalie has written–co-authored–this script purchased by NBC. . . being shot in Toronto and I will play her mother. I think three or four actresses are playing Natalie. It is about her growing up in a very privileged community here in California. This probably is one of the first shows on a major, major black star to grow up with that kind of lifestyle. . .and then the difficulties she had as a young woman. Anyway, these are people that I know. To make it whole, it would be exciting to see it come together. I considered Nat King Cole to be a friend and, in many ways, a mentor. He always had words of profound advice.

CC: Where did you grow up?

DC: I grew up in New York City…..

Diahann Carroll ABILITY Magazine Cover

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