InDepth InterView: Diahann Carroll
Today, in this BWW Exclusive interview, we are investigating the iconic and incomparable career - in every arena of entertainment, as depicted in her PBS concert retrospective Diahann Carroll: THE LADY, THE MUSIC, THE LEGEND - of Ms. Diahann Carroll. From being the first African American Golden Globe winner, winning for the first network series to feature a fresh, non-Caucasian actress as the lead character, JULIA; to co-starring in the films of George & Ira Gershwin's PORGY & BESS and Oscar Hammerstein's CARMEN JONES opposite the likes of Harry Belafonte and Sammy Davis Jr.; to her remarkable roles on Broadway in Harold Arlen and Truman Capote's HOUSE OF FLOWERS and Richard Rodgers's NO STRINGS, all the way up to Andrew Lloyd Webber's SUNSET BLVD in the 1990s in Toronto - and that's not even mentioning her concert appearances everywhere in the world for the last fifty years as well as her lauded performance on USA's hit nighttime drama WHITE COLLAR, which she returns to this week. Also, don't forget her humanitarian work for breast cancer awareness! She has done it all, and blazed a new path for herself and every actress coming in her wake in order to do so. She is the lady. She is the music. She is the legend. She is Diahann Carroll - and what divinity that is.
Golden Globe and Tony-winning star of stage and screen Diahann Carroll not only broke down racial and sexual boundaries to become the first African American woman to headline her own television series to much success and acclaim, JULIA - and did the same on Broadway in Richard Rodgers' NO STRINGS, winning her first Tony for that - but her entire career has been an act of activism in the face of adversity. It was near-impossible to rise to the top like she did when she did. The fact that she is one of the most beautiful women of the twentieth century only adds to her unmistakable allure, heightening our attraction to her rich skills as an actress and a singer whenever we see her on stage or on screen. Having been the muse to geniuses such as Richard Rodgers, Harold Arlen, Andre Previn and Truman Capote, and appearing alongside - and holding her own with - talent like Judy Garland, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis Jr., Paul Newman, JoAnne Woodward, Cloris Leachman, Raul Julia and so many, many more ups the fascination factor even more. So much of the history of entertainment in this country in the twentieth and twenty-first century can be found in her illuminating insights on faith, family, life and maintaining a flourishing career for the better part of a century. Over the course of our hours-long conversation, the attributes that become most arresting out of all about Ms. Carroll are five-fold: her elegance, grace, wit, commitment to her craft and, above all: focus. This is Hollywood Royalty of the old-school, a star unlike those you find today. An A list anomaly - and all will now be revealed!
A little history, a little politics, a little gossip and a lot of love from the divine Ms. Carroll in this BWW Exclusive InDepth InterView! In the first part we talk extensively about her television career (then and now) and the state of television today, then, in the second part, her work in theatre and in concert, ending with a thorough analysis of her numerous film appearances, as well as touching on some of her lesser-known work over the years.
Don't forget to catch Ms. Carroll on WHITE COLLAR this Tuesday on USA singing "One For My Baby" with Matt Bomer!
Part I: Life Vs. TV
PC: JULIA changed the face of American culture and how we viewed race as a nation, not only in our entertainment. Can you tell me about that?
DC: Thank you for that. I don't think we really realized the impact it would have while we were doing it. The creator is Hal Cantor and he just knew it was something that he felt he should do, both as a human being and as a writer/producer. So, we had great hopes, but we never thought we'd be sitting here fifty years later talking about the important part that it played in the development of television. As well as people of all races of Americans coming together to live life and have connection with each other in their communities and in their homes. So, I think we're all still overwhelmed and happy that that happened.
PC: What do you think of the Obamas in the White House? Do you think they have made an impact on the world and on communities in a global way?
DC: That's a lot to answer! Well, with any president it is difficult to predict how the world will be effected by his presence in the white house. I think President Obama has been handed a very, very large box of explosives and I hope he can find a way to place them in the box so they will fit and work in our favor but it's almost impossible, what he's inherited. But, at this time, with all the technology exploding all over the world and trying to keep up with it, my heart goes out to him. He's trying to be a family man. Additionally, he is trying to be a man in a lot of areas where he is a novice... and that is with the whole world watching. I just want him to understand that we know he is doing the best that he possibly can. Some of it I understand differently than he, we don't agree on each situation, but I do appreciate that he is a man on the job. We don't have to look for him or wonder how many times he is going back to the ranch to rest!
PC: Definitely not!
DC: He knows what he has been presented with and he is doing it. To the best of his abilities, I believe.
PC: You just mentioned technology and you mention in your concert that that was the impetus for doing the concert was you were wondering how your grandchildren could see your classic films and TV appearances from the Golden Age?
DC: Well, it's all a new feeling for me to understand that naturally my grandchildren - unless mom and dad are playing it for them at home or when they visit me - they're not exposed to it on television or anywhere. The only place I can think of is on the car radio when mom can say to them, "Oh, that's your grandmother singing!" (Laughs.)
PC: Right?! The Harry Belafonte duets, or the Andre Previn records...
DC: Oh, I do keep them aware. I'm a pain in the neck about that! (Laughs.)
PC: As we all should be!
DC: I send things to them all the time. Going all the way back to her first JULIA doll, not so long ago. I thought we were going to save it, but as I found out: that's my generation. She immediately dressed her and undressed her five times. But, that's making it her own JULIA doll so I love it.
PC: The past treasured things, now people want to change things every day!
DC: Constantly! I think I was there about an hour and the clothes were changed four times! But, I love that she associates with it in her time-frame and that's what she should do.
PC: What do you think of TV these days, since you were on JULIA, plus all those years on DYNASTY! Do you watch GLEE?
DC: I must tell you, I'm one of the few people I know - and I'm not proud of this - but I don't watch television.
PC: Good. It's not that great anymore.
DC: Well, I don't know if it's "good," but I've just had enough of it.
PC: Yeah, you gave us so many hundreds of hours of entertainment!
DC: And as you get older you just don't have room for all of that. I think if you work in television everyday, and you must be privy to everything happening in television, then do so. But, I think - and this may sound a little bit like sour grapes - I think the major artists of our country and popular artists, most assuredly, are out of the picture and they're doing everything as reality shows. Because, of course - you know and I know - it's less expensive for the producer. I always thought - childishly - that we were always primarily concerned with what new, wonderful information we could get out of this incredible machine. (Dramatic Pause.)
PC: What could have been!
DC: We're all human. It makes an awful lot of money. When it appeals as much as possible - forgive me - to the lower denominations it does very well, financially. So, the greed thing is here again and I guess that's part of business. I'm not that sophisticated, but I guess that's part of the business.
PC: You're a television icon, you're opinion is great to hear. You were there when it was the best.
DC: Frank Sinatra and I had, you know, "High Hopes"! We really believed in it back then.
PC: As you should have, at least you two!
DC: So, I thank God for the things that are informative and presented in a format that intrigues the youngsters and that there is something there to learn. Because watching these IDOL shows... and [THE BACHELOR] is damaging to our ideas about families and relationships. I'm stunned they live by these standards.
PC: The dating shows are crazy! JERSEY SHORE is just as bad.
DC: They just are, so they're on television. I'm stunned by it. And then there are those ladies, I think they're very nice young ladies. I can't think of their name, they have a very interesting mother I suppose but...
PC: The Kardashians?
DC: Yes, OK. But, how do they come to the conclusion that they should be on television?
PC: Kim Kardashian had a sex tape that went on the internet.
DC: Is that the reason? (Pause.) To have a television show?
PC: Definitely not! Paris Hilton is famous for that, too.
DC: I'm really a dinosaur here!
PC: No, you just are too above them in class and grace to see them, believe me!
DC: I do remember the days where those ladies would be asked to go home and never come out again, to be honest.
DC: All those ladies you mentioned - Julie and I are practically the same age - have worked very hard for a career. So, pardon me, if we seem confused and with these expectations for these people "entertaining" us with their "talent" - I'm totally lost! I don't know what this is I'm watching!
PC: Back when you worked with Judy Garland on her TV show it meant something! Those were the days!
DC: The finest producers, directors, performers of our time!
PC: Tell me about the best when being the top meant something. You worked with the best of the best. Case in point: Judy Garland?
PC: It's legendary, that appearance.
DC: I see it from time to time. . I stay away from talking about those memories. I find it, more than anything, depressing, to look back.
PC: I understand.
DC: Recently they presented me with a lovely show that I liked. It was MAD MEN.
PC: That's the best show on TV. If you're gonna watch any TV, watch that.
DC: Yeah, it's a concept about the ‘60s. Oh, an idea! And they're carrying it through! And they're using it in every area of their production from the wardrobe to the scenes to the sets to the dialogue and interaction between the actors. I hadn't seen anything like that in such a long time. It was a thrill!
PC: You did a great TV movie with Vanessa Williams, would you ever play her mother on DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES?
DC: First I'll have to watch DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES to find out what that is! I haven't seen it. Vanessa is a beautiful creature and a lovely, lovely girl. I saw her twice on Broadway and I just love her.
PC: You're on a bunch of hit shows right now! GREY'S ANATOMY...
DC: As soon as I got the call I sat down and watched GREY'S ANATOMY and I was thrilled to be a part of it. As of now I am doing WHITE COLLAR on USA and I am proud to be a part of it.
PC: You're character is so great! You're definitely coming back this season?
DC: Yes! As of now I am going to be coming back! Unless I say something that annoys the hell out of everybody then I won't be coming back! (Laughs.)
PC: Promise you'll never go away! We need you on TV!
DC: I'll try! (Laughs.)
PC: What do you think of JULIA and DYNASTY being on YouTube?
DC: I had heard that they were. I'm glad young people can see my work.
PC: Tell me about your breast cancer awareness work and the new documentary you appear in, 1 A MINUTE.
DC: I am a breast cancer survivor. I was intrigued to learn how many people prefer to talk to someone if they are familiar with their face, like an actor or a politician. So, I began traveling around the country and doing speeches, Q&As, and I have no idea how many we have spoken in front of by now. It's always an incredible experience. It puts everything into place in life when you speak to, you know, a twenty-six year old woman who must have a double mastectomy.
PC: Very difficult to deal with that and interpret it.
DC: The most important thing that she is there to discuss it. You're there. And you find a way to do so, or a suggestion that helps with the pressure, the strain, the stress and the depression that happens to these women. And, men, too, have problems with breast cancer. I think it is one of the most uplifting times of my life to be able to travel and meet every age, every group, every color, every sex, and to acknowledge how people accept it and deal with it. If you have a message from one person, it can be helpful to others even if I take it to my next speech with me.
PC: Passing on the good advice.
DC: Yeah, I don't want to sound lighthearted about it, but, God, it was a wonderful time. Sharing our mutual experience, names, suggestions. Because I do a job that keeps me aloof, you know, onstage performing, I enjoyed being right there in the middle of what the problems were, working it out. It makes you more than humble. I guess that's the positive I gained from having had cancer.
PC: So, it was like a group therapy session.
DC: Absolutely. Absolutely.
PC: How wonderful!
DC: It was wonderful. Without a doubt.
Part II: A Life In The Theatre, Born On Film
PC: Moving from politics to television to health to theatre: What was it like working with Truman Capote on HOUSE OF FLOWERS?
DC: Truman Capote was not a real human being. That was just a creation that were fortunate enough to have in our midst for awhile. There was a madness, a detachment, while being a great observer and able to bring us into experiences that we would have never known if not for Truman. To know Truman's "take" on a situation, so he put us in the middle of it. He was... (Long Pause.)
PC: Take your time.
DC: In his way he was very loving - and I was frightened to death. I had just become a part of the industry. But, I soon found that everything he had to say - no matter if I found it from time to time to be sharp and extremely critical - he said it in a way that made me gain a new appreciation for criticism. He was never judgmental. I learned a lot from Truman.
PC: Yes, who wouldn't?
DC: It was a stripping down for me, in terms of my preconceptions about so many things in the business and, in particular, my character in HOUSE OF FLOWERS. He taught me to love this little lady who was from the West Indies. But, he did that with all his actors. He was a consummate. He was an apparition! (Laughs.)
PC: Did he write "A Sleepin' Bee" specifically for you and your character as you were playing her?
DC: I like to think he did. He may have started writing it before we met. But, I always tell myself they wrote "A Sleepin' Bee" for me [and my character in the show].
PC: Why do you think that glorious score is never revived?
DC: Well, it requires a very expensive production.
PC: The cast album is all that survives.
DC: That's right.
PC: Do you think it could ever be revived?
DC: I think - foolishly, perhaps - that it could be redone. But, it needs a cast as powerful as we had the first time around.
PC: Good luck with that!
DC: I don't know if you can replace Pearl Bailey, but maybe you can!
PC: I don't think that's going to be happening any time soon!
DC: Not unless we change the age group completely! (Laughs.)
PC: Actually, Queen Latifah might be able to attempt to do it.
DC: She might. I'm not sure how old she is.
PC: She's in her forties now so maybe soon.
DC: Oh, she could do it!
PC: Maybe a movie someday! We'll rewrite it for you two! I'll direct!
DC: I'd love it! Hurry up before I‘m too old to do it! (Laughs.)
PC: You're never "too" anything, Ms. Carroll. You're always just right! Just perfect. How do you stay looking so good?
DC: Oh, you couldn't say anything to make me feel better! (Laughs.) It's maintenance, maintenance, maintenance! (Laughs.)
PC: You look absolutely magnificent, especially on your concert DVD. Who did your costumes?
DC: Bob Mackie. Exquisite indeed.
PC: Could you tell me how you pick the songs that you choose to sing? I'd love to hear you sing "Send In The Clowns".
DC: Well, now that I've seen Bernadette Peters do it I don't know if I'll ever touch it. She's fantastic!
PC: Oh, you just saw the revival with Elaine Stritch?
PC: You liked it, I take it? Bernadette Peters?
DC: She was just unbelievable. I didn't know what was coming, so it really hit me like a ton of - I'd seen it many times, I'm one of those people who go several times until I am satiated by everything about a particular production. But, Bernadette was really... beautiful. Just beautiful.
PC: I'm sure it means a lot to Bernadette to know you're such a fan!
DC: I wrote to her. I had to write to her.
PC: Now, that's talking the talk and walking the walk! It takes genius to recognize genius!
DC: Thank you so much, darling.
PC: What's on your iPod play list, what do you like to listen to?
DC: We have some very good music. As a country, as a culture.
PC: Do you listen to any of the shows you've been in?
DC: Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote some great music, some of those songs. "I don't know why I'm frightened... I know my way around here...."
PC: You were great in SUNSET BLVD. Speaking of that, tell me about Hollywood.
DC: CARMEN JONES was first. Listen, I was very happy that we were all working, I was happy that we were doing films.
PC: You're trying to be diplomatic.
DC: Well, you know, I'm not sure they were really necessary films. We all like to think we are involved with something necessary, something that can bring us one step further to "the finest human beings we can be" as they say.
PC: Yes. But, PORGY & BESS...
DC: I suppose that should have been done so young people could be exposed to Gershwin. His music was magnificent. His music was worth hearing. I didn't really think we needed the rest of it. But, I was very young and very opinionated. Probably, luckily, no one paid me much attention. But...
PC: With the way you looked at twenty years old I highly doubt that!
DC: I was very young.
PC: What about working with Dorothy Dandridge?
DC: We're all very different people. We're in this profession for many different reasons. As beautiful and incredible as Dorothy was to look upon on screen, I don't think she really enjoyed working.
PC: Like Marilyn Monroe.
DC: I think she really did not enjoy it. I think she was so beautiful and when she was electrifying on screen you had to just... I was overwhelmed by her beauty and her talent.
PC: What about Sammy Davis Jr.?
DC: Sammy was an experience that I wish everyone in the whole world could have because he was all of one piece. On set, he was Sammy. In the car driving there, he was Sammy. There was no separate Sammy. He was all Sammy, all the time. He was one person. Sammy Davis Jr.
PC: Wow what a great answer!
DC: It's my pleasure.
PC: OK, one esoteric question. My favorite actor is Raul Julia and you worked with him in this movie in the 70s, DEATH SCREAM. I can't track down a copy, do you have one?
DC: Oh, no! If you find it let me know! Raul Julia was... did you see him on stage in NINE?
PC: No, it was before I was born. I wish!
DC: Oh, dear boy. I'm so sorry. That was one of the best theatrical performances ever.
DC: James Earl was, you're right, no less than brilliant. He was born to do that. I hate to use the phrase, but he was absolutely fabulous.
PC: You've worked together a couple of times, he's back on Broadway soon.
DC: One film I did that I am very proud of is CLAUDINE.
DC: Oh, yes. There is something on the set, in the work, propelling yourself and you co-workers forward. That's the way we all felt when we were bringing something to the screen that was not seen that often. The situation with this mother on welfare and children - many children - it's something we live with constantly, today. Everyone was committed to something of value. It gave us what we were looking for.
PC: OK and one off-the-wall question: THE STAR WARS CHRISTMAS SPECIAL?
DC: The only thing I remember is I liked the costumes.
PC: Your character was named Mermeia Holograph Wow.
DC: I certainly hope so! (Laughs.)
PC: So, it was a fond memory.
DC: Most of the time I have fond memories. I really do have fond memories. If an experience is beginning to turn unpleasant, I will usually walk and wait until the person in charge - the producer, the director - gets it under control. But, I don't usually argue or have confrontations on set. No, I don't.
PC: And we're not going to talk about DYNASTY. You've certainly worked with some difficult people - some would say the most!
DC: That's right. I certainly did! (Laughs.)
PC: Define collaboration.
DC: First and foremost, it is listening to each other. The listening to each other has to bring about a desire to make what you just said a reality. Make something of it. Make it real. There is no collaboration if we cannot hear each other.
PC: This has been a true delight, Ms. Carroll.
DC: You have been absolutely delightful to speak to. This has been a great interview. Thank you.
From This Author Pat Cerasaro