Carol Diahann Johnson was born in the Bronx, New York City, on July 17, 1935, to John Johnson, a subway conductor, and Mabel (Faulk), a nurse.While Carroll was still an infant, the family moved to Harlem, where she grew up. She attended Music and Art High School, and was a classmate of Billy Dee Williams. In many interviews about her childhood, Diahann Carroll recalls her parents’ support, enrolling her in dance, singing, and modeling classes. By the time Carroll was 15, she was modeling for Ebony. “She also began entering television contests, including “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts,” under the name Diahann Carroll.” After graduating from high school, she attended New York University, majoring in sociology, “but she left before graduating to pursue a show-business career, promising her family that if the career did not materialize after two years, she would return to college.”
Carroll’s big break came at 18, when she appeared as a contestant on the DuMont Television Network program, Chance of a Lifetime, hosted by Dennis James. On the show, which aired January 8, 1954, she took the $1,000 top prize for a rendition of the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein song, “Why Was I Born?” She went on to win the following four weeks. Engagements at Manhattan’s Café Society and Latin Quarter nightclubs soon followed. That same year, Carroll made her Broadway debut at age 19 in the Harold Arlen musical “House of Flowers,” . After having seen her in “House of Flowers,” songwriter Richard Rodgers promised he would one day write a vehicle for Carroll. That turned out to be “No Strings,” the 1962 musical about an interracial romance between a writer and a fashion model. “Miss Carroll brings glowing personal beauty to the role of the model and her singing captures many moods,” the New York Times said. For her work Carroll picked up the Tony as best actress in a musical. Carroll’s notices brought her substantial attention and led to her first movie role in “Carmen Jones.” as a friend to the sultry lead character played by Dorothy Dandridge. Carroll made her TV debut on “The Red Skelton Show” and appeared on other variety programs fronted by Steve Allen, Garry Moore, Jack Paar and Danny Kaye, as well as on “The Ed Sulivan Show.” She acted in TV dramas including “Peter Gunn” and “Naked City. A few years later, she played Clara in the film version of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1959), but her character’s singing parts were dubbed by opera singer Loulie Jean Norman. She made a guest appearance in the series Peter Gunn, in the episode “Sing a Song of Murder” (1960). She starred with Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman, and Joanne Woodward in the film Paris Blues (1961). In 1962, Carroll won the Tony Award for best actress (the first time for a black woman) for the role of Barbara Woodruff in the Samuel A. Taylor and Richard Rodgers musical No Strings. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for the film Claudine (1974). The role of Claudine had been written specifically for actress Diana Sands (who had made guest appearances on Julia as Carroll’s cousin Sara), but shortly before filming was to begin, Sands found out that she was terminally ill with cancer. Sands attempted to carry on with the role, but as filming began, she became too ill to continue, and recommended her friend Carroll take over the role. Sands would not live to see Claudine. She died in September 1973; Claudine, starring Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones, was released in April 1974. Despite her beauty and undeniable talents as a performer, Carroll sometimes struggled to find roles. When once asked why she did little film work after “Claudine,” she replied incredulously, “Have you seen another film script with a starring role with the character of Claudine? I haven’t.” She told another reporter, “I’m sometimes amazed at how few people realize what it takes for a black woman to survive in this business.”
Carroll was known for her titular role in the television series Julia (1968), which made her the first African-American actress to star in her own television series where she did not play a domestic worker. That role won her the Golden Globe Award for “Best Actress In A Television Series” for its year,and a nomination for an Emmy Award in 1969. Some of her earlier work also included appearances on shows hosted by Jack Paar, Merv Griffin, Johnny Carson, Judy Garland, and Ed Sullivan, and on The Hollywood Palace variety show. In 1984, Carroll joined the nighttime soap opera Dynasty as the mixed-race jet set diva Dominique Deveraux, half-sister of Blake Carrington. Her high-profile role on Dynasty also reunited her with schoolmate Billy Dee Williams, who briefly played her onscreen husband Brady Lloyd. Carroll remained on the show until 1987, simultaneously making several appearances on its short-lived spin-off, The Colbys. She received her third Emmy nomination in 1989 for the recurring role of Marion Gilbert in A Different World.
Carroll played the role of Eleanor Potter, the wife of Jimmy Potter, portrayed by Chuck Patterson, in The Five Heartbeats (1991), a musical drama film in which Jimmy manages a vocal group. In this role, Carroll was a doting, concerned, and protective wife alongside actor and musician Robert Townsend, Michael Wright, and others. In a 1995 reunion with Billy Dee Williams in Lonesome Dove: The Series, she played Mrs. Greyson, the wife of Williams’ character. In 1996, Carroll starred as the self-loving and deluded silent movie star Norma Desmond in the Canadian production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical version of the film Sunset Boulevard. In 2001, Carroll made her animation début in The Legend of Tarzan, in which she voiced Queen La, an evil sorceress and ruler of the ancient city of Opar.
Carroll appeared in the television medical drama Grey’s Anatomy (2006) as Jane Burke, the demanding mother of Dr. Preston Burke. From December 2008, she appeared in USA Network’s series White Collar as June, the savvy widow who rents out her guest room to Neal Caffrey. In 2010, Carroll was featured in UniGlobe Entertainment’s breast cancer docudrama titled 1 a Minute, and she appeared as Nana in two Lifetime movies: At Risk and The Front, movie adaptations of two Patricia Cornwell novels.
Carroll was present on stage for the 2013 Emmy Awards, to briefly speak about being the first African American nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award. She was quoted as saying, “talented Kerry Washington better win!” Washington erroneously stated that Carroll was the first black performer ever to be nominated for an Emmy. In fact, at least three black performers were nominated before Carroll, who was first nominated in 1963. These performers include: Ethel Waters for a guest appearance on Route 66, in 1962; Harry Belafonte, nominated in 1956 and 1961 and winning in 1960; and Sammy Davis Jr., who was nominated in 1956 with Belafonte.