Diahann Carroll has a regular role on the USA hit "White Collar." (Dan Krauss )
Groundbreaking actress-singer Diahann Carroll ("Julia," "Claudine") was an 18-year-old New York model when her singing career took off. Her break came when she won a talent show called, appropriately enough, "Chance of a Lifetime" in January 1954 on the old DuMont Network. Besides the cash prize, she was booked at the famed Latin Quarter nightclub.
By year's end she had made her film debut in Otto Preminger's "Carmen Jones" with Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte and her Broadway bow in the Truman Capote-Harold Arlen musical "House of Flowers" with the legendary Pearl Bailey.
"I loved every moment of it," said Carroll, recalling those early days. "I just assumed everyone's career went through the same machinations. It wasn't until much later that I realized how fortunate I had been."
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Dressed in stylish pants and blouse topped with a creamy tan leather jacket, Carroll, 77, is holding court at the lounge of a Beverly Hills hotel. When she's complimented on her vitality, she's characteristically modest, saying that a lot of people in their 70s look good today, but adding, "Thank you."
Though throat issues have caused her to stop singing, Carroll is keeping busy with her recurring gig as June, a wealthy widow on the popular USA network series "White Collar" and strutting her comedic side as an outspoken grandmother in the new comedy "Peeples," written and directed by Tina Gordon Chism and produced by Tyler Perry.
The film, which opens Friday, revolves around a children's entertainer (Craig Robinson) who decides to crash the reunion of his girlfriend's (Kerry Washington) upper-crust family at their vacation home. Carroll and actor-director Melvin van Peebles play Washington's grandparents. It's a chance for Carroll to play up her comedy skills as Nana Peeples, with some of the funniest lines in the movie.
"I don't think I have been in a room on a project with all of these incredible black actors," said Carroll. "Black actresses don't find good comedy. Some of it is immature and too silly."
Carroll's scene was shot on the first day of production in Connecticut.
"I was so nervous," said Chism, who based the character on her own grandmother. "Then it began to snow. I was having a silent meltdown. Diahann Carroll stood up … before we started shooting to say how excited she was to come and play with a new generation of filmmakers and actors. It refocused all of us and gave me a moment to come back into my body."
Carroll won a Tony Award for the 1962 Richard Rodgers musical "No Strings," earned a Golden Globe plus an Emmy nomination for the 1968-71 NBC comedy series "Julia" and received an Oscar nomination for lead actress for the 1974 comedy "Claudine."
But Hollywood didn't welcome her with open arms when she arrived for auditions in the late 1950s. New York was integrated, Los Angeles less so, she said.
"It was not friendly at all," recalled the actress, who now lives here. "We have to remember we didn't see movies or television that involved black people. That didn't make me comfortable."
Producers, she added, "treated me like a novelty, not like I am an actress. You have to go away from those people. You must stay within your range."
To Chism, Carroll is "the epitome of the kind of actress who has made smart choices in a very hostile, at times, industry and maintained her dignity."
Two of her smartest choices were "Julia," which marked one of the first times an African American actress starred in a professional, non-stereotypical role on a sitcom, and "Claudine," in which she played the single mother of six who falls in love with a garbage collector (James Earl Jones). Carroll was only the fourth African American woman to receive an Academy Award nomination for lead actress.
Carroll recalled the warm reaction to "Julia," not only from African American audiences "but all Americans," she said. "It was amazing. It was really a response I didn't expect."
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