hide captionCarroll as a young actress, circa 1955-1965.
John Springer Collection/Corbis
Carroll as a young actress, circa 1955-1965.
John Springer Collection/Corbis
For more than 50 years, actress and singer Diahann Carroll has been breaking barriers. She was the first black woman to win a Tony for best actress, and the first black woman to star in her own TV show — while not playing a maid. As the title character in that sitcom, Julia, Carroll became the model for one of the first black Barbie dolls.
These days, Carroll is still elegant, still headstrong and still able to turn heads with those illustrious legs, though the title of her new memoir might suggest otherwise: The Legs Are the Last to Go: Aging, Acting, Marrying and Other Things I Learned the Hard Way.
"I'm going to admit I'm very proud of them," Carroll says, laughing, in a conversation with NPR's Michele Norris. "They are holding up amazingly well."
The book's cover features Carroll in a director's chair, her legs crossed and outstretched. She looks relaxed, but the preparations for the photo shoot were anything but.
Carroll says she took a water pill and it "backfired" — her clothes wouldn't fit, and she couldn't zip or button any of them.
"I was almost twice the size the day that I took the pill," Carroll says. She also says she was "a little anxious about the body, as one is when people have been talking about your body for 50-some-odd years."
So instead, she put her photographer's shirt on, belted it and "pushed and pulled at it and we finally got the body shape that we wanted." But Carroll took it in stride — unlike how she might have reacted in the past.
"I remember the time when that would have been so traumatic for me, that I don't think I would have been able to do it," Carroll says.
It's about simplicity, she says.
'Youth Can Be Very, Very Threatening'
In the book, Carroll also talks about the difficulties she faced as a young, black artist thrust into the spotlight on Broadway.
She highlights a particular moment with actress Pearl Bailey, who was — at first — very supportive of Carroll and whom she calls "one of the biggest stars of our time."
In the show House of Flowers, Carroll was supposed to sing the song "Don't Like Goodbyes." But Bailey loved the song and wanted to sing it, Carroll says.
During the performance, the older actress was supposed to sing a few phrases of the song to Carroll, who was sitting on the floor next to her, and then turn Carroll's face downstage. Instead, Bailey turned Carroll's face upstage, away from the audience.
"It was one of the highest compliments and one of the most embarrassing moments in my life," Carroll says. "Yes, it was horrible."
She calls it a compliment because she says Bailey wanted the song to herself — and didn't want the audience to see Carroll's face because "somehow that was a threat to her."
"I've gotten older now and I understand it, very much so," Carroll says. "Youth can be very, very threatening. And I was very young."
On Romance And Career
Carroll, who was married several times and had a long love affair with actor Sidney Poitier, says the years have given her perspective on some of the choices she made in love and work.
"I'm a terrible romantic, just ridiculously so," Carroll says. "It's immature, my romanticism. It will not sustain a relationship. I know that now. I think I could have been a good wife at some point, but obviously I didn't need that as much as I need my work.
"I love my child — my daughter, Suzanne. And we've had a very rough time, a very, very rough time," Carroll says. "But once again, I had to come to terms with what it is that propelled me forward most of my life, and that's my work. And I think she's come to terms in some ways with that. Some of it she's forgiven me for, some she may never forgive me for. But I can't change it."
Excerpt: 'The Legs Are The Last To Go'
by Diahann Carroll
Upon the Wicked Stage
Call me crazy, but I understand Norma Desmond, the silent-screen diva who the world passed by in Sunset Boulevard. Norma Desmond drives a Rolls-Royce. Norma Desmond has a penchant for spending lavishly. She knows the magic of makeup and the thrill of casting spells over millions. She is a character who remembers what it's like to be adored when young. She also knows the savagery of show business.
And so do I.
Not that I've had it bad. How many actresses receive a call at fifty to play an overdressed black bitch on an international hit show like Dynasty? People still manage to keep me in mind, even now, twenty years later. I get my share of calls to sing in lovely venues, and still know the plea sure of standing on a well-lit stage performing. Sometimes, I am invited to accept an award. But that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of days when I feel completely passed over and passed by. Well, I imagine that's how many people feel when their high-powered careers slow down. Performers, of course, have to deal with droughts and doubts all the time, even when young. It's a tough field. You're in, you're out. You're right for something, you're wrong. You have to learn to live with rejection and curdled ambition on a daily basis, especially if you happen to be female.
Norma Desmond took her discomfort to an epic level. Yet what actress of a certain age would not cringe at the famous Rolls-Royce scene? Norma has finally gotten the call she's been longing for from an accomplished director. She prepares for weeks for her meeting with him—massages, facials, exercise—everything she can do to set back the clock and dazzle when she returns to the lights and cameras. When she finally arrives on the set, in all her glamour and glory, she is quietly hit with the terrible, insulting news that the movie studio has only called her because it wants to use her car, not her, for a movie. It has come to that. Her car is more in demand than she is.
When, in 1994, my agent called to tell me I'd been invited by the producers to audition for Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard, I was familiar with the rhythms of a life in which the phone didn't ring as often, at least not with offers for major roles. I was, after all, in my sixties at the time, and fully aware of the limited shelf life of any acting career. Happily, my emotional footing was far more secure than Norma Desmond's. I knew I wasn't being handed the role. I'd have to work to get it.
I started preparing with even more diligence than usual. And a few days into it, I was told that Sir Andrew was actually going to be at the audition. It was very nerve- racking. Auditioning always is. You have to find the character in your head, and worry if what you find will complement what the director, producer, and writer envision.
I go through this every time I audition. Even after NBC hired me to play Julia, a nurse and single mother, Hal Kanter, the creator of the show, had reservations. He was a charming and outspoken white Southerner who'd been a writer for Amos 'n' Andy, among many other projects, and he had a firm sense of what Middle America wanted for its first African-American sitcom star in 1968. And despite the network's faith in me, Hal was not completely convinced that I was the right woman for the role. He felt my image was too worldly and glamorous.
Well, I had won a Tony for playing a chic model in Paris for Richard Rodgers on Broadway, and I had done several Hollywood films with Otto Preminger. I performed in luxurious venues in New York, Las Vegas, and Miami, and had appeared on beautifully produced television specials for years. I was one of those fortunate performers — and there might have been only a dozen of us in total — who went from show to show — Ed Sullivan, Dean Martin, Judy Garland — holiday specials, shows about everything from Broadway to black humor. I was even chosen in 1967 to costar with Maurice Chevalier in the first collaboration between French and American television. Every appearance was more lavish than the next.
Hal Kanter knew all about my jet-set lifestyle when NBC told him he was to meet with me. I knew about his hesitancy, so for our first meeting, I dressed carefully — to look modest, and though it was a Givenchy, the line was so simple, I knew it would work — and walked into the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel.
I was told later that he didn't recognize me. "That's the look I want for this character," he told a colleague. "A well-dressed house wife just like that woman."
Then I came over to the table and he discovered that "that woman" was me.
"Hal," I said. "I know I can do this. I'm an actress. You saw me come through that door and I convinced you that I could be a house wife. Well, guess what? I prepared to be a house wife for this interview. And I think this is how Julia would dress."
I have to say, preparing to audition for Norma Desmond was less of a stretch. Although I've always considered myself more of a worker than a diva, I could relate to the character of an extravagant actress in the twilight of her career. I felt so much pressure for my Sunset Boulevard audition. I knew I was the first black actress to be considered for the role, and worked very hard to keep that thought out of my head as I rehearsed with my pianist. I was intent on nailing the character of a sixty-year-old woman living in complete denial, no matter what color she is.