It’s been 40 years since Diahann Carroll became the first black actress to have a TV show featured around her character Julia. The 73-year-old Golden Globe winning actress hasn’t slowed down whether it’s singing or acting, but don’t expect to see Ms. Carroll in any type of reality show like Dancing with the Stars. Her hope is to find another role similar to her 1974 performance in Claudine that earned her an Academy Award nomination. In the meantime, Carroll has released her new memoirs The Legs Are The Last To Go that share all of the trials and tribulations of her life.
Listen to the Diahann Carroll interview:
Chris Yandek: At the end of the book you say you’re in a very happy place. Can you describe it for me what it’s like for you right now?
Diahann Carroll: “Well, I’ve done most of the things I’ve really wanted to do in my career. I am enjoying my family. That includes my grandchildren. I am enjoying my friends more than I ever have in my life because I have the time, and travel, and I just think it’s kind of the best of all worlds. Everything is better than I’ve had it before.”
CY: But why do you think it is?
DC: “I think I’ve probably been coming here to this place, trying to arrive here for a very long time. When I saw it and recognized it, my life was taking a turn for the better after the divorce and after learning about the breast cancer I was very grateful for all of it. I intend to enjoy it and enjoy it with the pride of what went before so that I arrived here safely.”
CY: It’s been almost 40 years since that Golden Globe for <em>Julia</em> for best female actress in a TV series. What do you think Julia meant to women overall?
DC: “The first exposure to a middle class Black American woman raising her son alone working as she raises her son and the circumstances that are thrust upon them. Her husband was killed in the war, Vietnam. I think that all of those characteristics Hal Kanter put into that lifestyle that he created for Julia. I think they’re all terribly important and I think still are important, but Julia happened to be the first time a Black American was starring in a TV series with a child and a life. Many of the comments that were made at that time was the fact that usually the American public was treated to a story about someone who was a maid or something in the servitude. I think it was very important to a lot of women.”
CY: You were away from your mother and father for a year in your younger years and they did it because they wanted to build a better financial life. Move up in the world as they say and you say in the book, “And I still believe that year – and the fear I subsequently had of being left behind – caused me to stick with men who were absolutely wrong for me later in my life. I also carried with me a feeling that I had done something wrong to deserve such treatment from people I loved so very much.” Why do you think you did something wrong?
DC: “Well, when you’re that age and your parents disappear, which is literally what happened cause I waked the next morning my mother was gone – children feel it’s their fault if the father leaves or the mother leaves, children usually relate to that as I did something wrong. Why isn’t daddy here? Why isn’t mommy here? I don’t know why the child feels, but I think that’s still true. Of course it sounds like a psychological definition and it is. That’s in my therapy where I learned that most of us when the family is sent in all directions a child feels that they are the reason that that happened.”
CY: Look at your personal life, why do you think you thought you were never in control? You were independent. You had your own career choices. You had stability. Why do you think you never thought that you were an equal and you took some of the things you probably shouldn’t have?
DC: “I think it’s very connected to what we discussed before – the being left at a very early age by my mother and father and I didn’t see them for a year. When my mother arrived and she took me home back to New York, my behavior then was very strange. I didn’t really go into all of that in the book because it’s ugly. My mother had to help me through that period. So there is an enormous emotional reaction to the fact and I’ll say it again that my mother and father chose to leave me. I think unfortunately that kind of experience is very difficult for a child to dismiss or really understand.”
CY: And then you look back and you say to yourself at some point in the book, what was I thinking? Why didn’t she leave? Why did she stick around?
DC: “I think we’ve already established that a child that is left by the parent has a feeling of being unloved, unwanted, probably it cuts the self esteem down to the quick. We’re also discussing the fact that that feeling of being not necessary and not loved enough it can follow you through your life and your behavior very often is a manifestation of those feelings about yourself and you operate out of them when you don’t even realize it because they’re so early in your life, so young that you accepted the fact that you were probably the demise of this relationship between your mother and your father which you were deprived of at a point then you’re never sure why you were deprived of it. So there is a scar and it’s horrendous and I don’t know how different it really is today if a child is left. I think they’re scars that are there in the behavior of a 20 year old, a 40 year old, it’s very hard. I am watching my daughter almost dealing with the same problem.”
CY: Focusing on motherhood, there is a story in the book about how Marilyn Monroe and you were talking and she said she wanted to get pregnant and she said, “You must be so happy.” Do you think she yearned for more purpose in her life?
DC: “Yeah I guess we all do. She came to the club more than once and I saw her on a few occasions. I was there the night she sang Happy Birthday to President Kennedy. I think many people in show business recognized that this was about to become a train wreck. It was something that we were watching and unfortunately it happened.”
CY: Another legend in the business Frank Sinatra, there is an amazing story in the book about him with an interaction with your daughter Suzanne. At that time and that period, what was it like being the woman around the rat pack going from different TV specials and other events and being around these men everyone admired by so many people. What was it like for you?
DC: “It was almost really like playing in the playground because they really were little boys and I was seduced by all that very young, very immature charm and I was basically a little girl. It was fun. We were in our playground. We were doing what we loved to do and we were all growing in our respective careers, and pursuing something we thought was important and very enjoyable. I loved being around them. There were times, there were times when it was definitely the time that one says thank you for a very lovely evening and you leave but funny and charming and caring was all really a wonderful time.”
CY: The on going party?
DC: “You could stay as long as you wish. You wouldn’t go home. You could make your own bedtime.”
CY: You were at the beginning of the integrated period of Hollywood. How far has the industry come?
DC: “Not very far. Not as far as we would like. There has been progress and I think we’ve seen a few people who’ve made tremendous…tremendous strides in this town. One of them is this young man Denzel Washington. We have recognized the fact that in this town, Hollywood has recognized the fact that it’s a situation that has to be dealt with. It must be dealt with on a very serious level. The black community has money now and the music business also presents a situation that is moneyed so we’ve grown up and we know what to do with money. I think we’re going to see a lot of changes in the next 10 years.”
CY: Speaking of the younger stars of today, who do you enjoy watching?
DC: “I think Denzel’s work is exquisite. It’s a joy to watch him and he has mastered that camera. He knows how to use it. He gets a performance out of himself whatever he undertakes he’s always very thorough.”
CY: There is an interesting part in the book where you talk about what Don Imus said to the Rutgers women and you say, “Yet why not give people who have apologized profusely the benefit of the doubt.” Do you feel in some senses we have become too politically correct and oversensitive? Don’t we all say things we regret?
DC: “I think you and I are basically saying the same thing. I think so. I am pleased that we have that point of view and that we’re relaxing a bit because racial comments are going to be around forever. I think whenever I stoop to do such a thing in company that I can rely upon to understand what that statement from me is all about and I understand what their statements are all about. I think it was very smart when Tiger Woods mentioned that he didn’t want anything changed at the country club. It’s not necessary that it needs to be changed. When Italians came in for the first time, there were jokes made. When Jews came in for the first time, there were jokes made. That’s what we do. We’re just not comfortable with each other after all these years that we don’t know how to make fun of something which we’re not familiar and we’ll outgrow it in time, but it happens to everybody. And Tiger, this enormously gifted human being and his special kind of dignity he recognized that when they made jokes about the menu for example and perhaps it should be changed and all the racial slurs. I thought he handed it beautifully and hope we all learn how to do that.”
CY: From someone who had to deal with racial comments from co-workers, the crowd, others, what did you learn from those experiences besides to be strong and not let it get to you?
DC: “I always repeat what my mother told me when I was growing up that if someone has a problem with me because of the color of my skin that they’re ill. There is something wrong with that. There is so many different colors, shapes, sizes, of the face and the eyes, and so many things all over the world that if you have a problem adjusting to something that you’re not familiar that they’re very sad because they don’t understand the world in which they live.”
CY: A lot of amazing women have had the courage to be judged and critiqued on Dancing With the Stars. Would you ever consider doing something fun and different like that?
DC: “No. I have seen Dancing with the Stars. Maybe five minutes of it at some point and I have many reactions to Dancing with the Stars. It’s a great way to use the time on the network without paying somebody who could do an honorable credible job of work. I don’t know what this thing is that’s going on. Everything is a competition.”
CY: Well, it’s not that everything is a competition Diahann. It’s that everything is a reality show.
DC: “Yes, but everybody is competing with each other.”
CY: There are shows that are on TV that are not necessary competition that are considered reality.
DC: “Well, this one in particular you’re discussing.”
CY: Yes. Don’t you think in general television has become a reality show and there is less dramas for example?
DC: “And on the reality shows, don’t the people have to come out the winner? You’re the winner.”
DC: “I lose and you win.”
CY: Sometimes…sometimes. So what do you still want to do in this industry?
DC: “What I do. I am an actress and I am a singer.”
CY: Is there anything in particular you’d still like to do? Any roles you’d like to play?
DC: “Yes. I like those meaty roles and Claudine was the first opportunity really to get my teeth into something like that and I’d love to do that kind of role again.”
CY: Finally, when it’s all said and done, how do you want to be remembered?
DC: “As someone who loved her work and tried to do the best work she possibly could at every time at every turn and tried to be the best mom she possibly could be in addition to acknowledging the work.”
You can find more information about Diahann Carroll and The Legs Are The Last To Go at her official site: http://www.diahanncarroll.net