Carroll, who died Friday after a battle with cancer, was seen as a forebear to Washington and her iconic role, which marked the first time in nearly four decades (since Teresa Graves starred in ABC’s short-lived 1970s crime drama “Get Christie Love!”) that an African American woman was the lead of a prime-time network drama.
By the time Carroll began playing Julia Baker in 1968, she had already become the first black woman to win a Tony (for the musical “No Strings”) and had starred in several films including “Porgy and Bess.” But in her early days at NBC, the Harlem native encountered a stark reminder of her groundbreaking status. In a 2014 episode of PBS’s “Pioneers of Television,” Carroll recalled that NBC’s makeup department did not have makeup for an actress of her complexion.
“The studio had only dealt with the little American girls or European girls,” Carroll said. “How could you have a makeup department and you don’t have makeup for every skin in the United States of America?”
Just two years earlier, NBC had struggled to find a national sponsor for a star-studded variety program hosted by crooner Nat King Cole, who later remarked that “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.” “Julia” defied expectations — landing in the Nielsen Top 10 in its first season — and led to a series of accolades for Carroll, who in 1969 became the first African American to win a Golden Globe — and the first African American woman to receive an Emmy nomination.
But the show was controversial amid the racial unrest that followed the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. An Ebony article that year noted that “for all its merits as a television ‘first,’ " the sitcom had drawn criticism “for not projecting a male head-of-the-family image” and “for showing Julia and [her] son leading a happily integrated life among middle class whites.”
“However Julia is presented, she represents another and more realistic evolution purely because of the circumstances of her existence,” Carroll told the magazine. “She has her faults, but Julia is still quite special in that she’s bright and curious. I identify very much with Julia.”
And the role would have implications for future generations, Carroll told Ebony. “Black children are going to have a marvelous time now. Their self-image is going to be so much greater.”
On “Pioneers of Television,” Carroll recalled that in 1968, several years ahead of Norman Lear’s socially conscious sitcom slate, television shows were wary of addressing race. “It was absolutely ‘let’s stay away from that, that is too controversial,’ so we knew that going in,” Carroll said on PBS. “That first you make the success — after you’ve done that, you can make other steps.”
“There was nothing like this young successful mother on the air,” she added. “We thought that it might be a very good stepping stone.”
After “Julia” went off the air in 1971, Carroll returned to the stage and the big screen, which landed her an Oscar nomination (for “Claudine”) in 1975. Nine years later, as Carroll prepared to take on the role of a glamorous businesswoman in the iconic prime-time soap “Dynasty,” she set her sights on another first: “I want to be the first black b---- on television,” she told People magazine.
Her character, Dominique Deveraux, was shrouded in mystery when she joined “Dynasty” in its fourth season. Carroll had sought out the role after falling in love with the soap. “I thought, ‘If this isn’t the biggest hoot I’ve ever seen, and the world is loving it,' ” she said in a 1998 interview with the Television Academy Foundation. “Everyone was elegant, everyone was rich, everyone was traveling all over the world, and I said, ‘That’s what I want to do. That’s what I need to do.’ ”
Carroll reached out to Aaron Spelling and suggested to one of the producer’s colleagues that “Dynasty” — which had dealt, however controversially, with homosexuality and other hot-button issues — had tackled just about everything except racial integration. To do that, they first had to integrate the cast.
But nothing happened until Barbra Streisand invited Carroll to sing a song from “Yentl” at the 1983 Golden Globe Awards. Knowing Spelling would be there, she dressed the part. After the ceremony, Carroll went to the private Los Angeles nightclub where Spelling and his colleagues were celebrating. Spelling later told People that after seeing Carroll, he and “Dynasty” co-creator Esther Shapiro “looked at each other and said, 'My God, she is ‘Dynasty.’ ”
When Carroll came on board, she had one mandate for the show’s writers: “Don’t try to write for who you think I am — write for a white man who wants to be wealthy and powerful.”
Spoiler alert: Dominique Deveraux turned out to be the surprise half-sister of oil baron Blake Carrington. The role led to epic showdowns with Blake’s vindictive ex-wife, Alexis (Joan Collins).
As news of Carroll’s death spread Friday, she was honored by prominent black women in entertainment, including Washington and “Scandal” creator Shonda Rhimes.
"The power and impact of Diahann Carroll is immeasurable. As the first, she escorted the tv drama into the 20th century,” Rhimes said in a statement. “Her Julia Baker is queen mother to Olivia Pope’s existence.”
Filmmaker Ava DuVernay tweeted that Carroll “blazed trails through dense forests and elegantly left diamonds along the path for the rest of us to follow.”
“Diahann Carroll you taught us so much,” wrote Debbie Allen, who directed the actress in her recurring role as Whitley Gilbert’s mother on “A Different World.” “We are stronger, more beautiful and risk takers because of you,” Allen added. “We will forever sing your praises and speak your name.”
“I love you for eternity. With all my heart. I am because of you,” Washington wrote.