You may remember her as Julia, the nurse who stole everyone’s hearts as the first black female character on prime-time TV, or if you are a little younger, maybe she captivated you with her vixen-esque depiction of Dominque Deveraux in the intoxicating nighttime serial “Dynasty.”
Broadway fanatics no doubt relished her portrayal of silent-screen star Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard” — the first woman of color to take on that heady role.
No matter where or when or how you remember your first introduction to Diahann Carroll, you cannot deny that she is a legend—an accomplished, versatile performer who has mastered all genres of entertainment, from stage to screen — both big and small — as well as song.
The consummate entertainer, she has received a Tony and a Golden Globe award and has been nominated for an Emmy, a Grammy and a Best Actress Oscar nod.
But her success goes beyond mere talent—which she has in spades. Carroll had no choice; she had to perform — it’s her destiny.
“I have always been exactly what I am today,” she says, her voice soft and precise over the phone from Los Angeles. “My mother says it started probably around the age of 5 or 6. My need was always to dominate the room with some part of what I felt I could do artistically — sing or try to play the piano. I loved singing and I loved the music. I don’t really know if I could’ve done anything else. If so it probably would’ve been in the world of fashion and couture. But I think I’m exactly where I belong.”
The desert is another place she feels she belongs from time to time to help her rejuvenate.
“I like the clear, dry desert air,” she explains, “and I think it’s an easy way to escape, and we all need that once in a while. I certainly need it.”
You might think that a woman with such a long and formidable career might be looking forward to some permanent downtime, but not so for Carroll. For her, retirement is a four-letter word.
“It’s a word that I find difficult to accept and as long as this industry is kind enough to allow me to have a part of it…” she pauses and then adds with a laugh, “I do not want to hang around too long so that I won’t embarrass myself, just dying to be on stage or in front of the camera. I don’t want that to happen. But I do enjoy what I do and I’ve done it all my life. It’s very hard to think about not doing that.”
Fortunately, she doesn’t have to entertain any ideas about retirement anytime soon. This August, Carroll will be bringing her acclaimed one-woman show, “The Lady … The Music … The Legend,” into homes across America as part of a PBS fundraising program. If you don’t want to wait until summer to see the show on TV, the live performance to be filmed for PBS is taking place on Wednesday, April 21, at the Annenberg Theater in Palm Springs.
The show, Carroll promises, will feature some of her favorite music from the ’40s and ’50s.
“Wonderful music that I love, that I’ve been singing now for the last 50 odd years,” she says, adding that the quality of the lyrics and the melodies appeal to her greatly.
“It’s an era that fed me as an artist, and I’ve never really been able to replace it. There’s been other music that I’ve been involved with recently, but it’s not as fulfilling to me as what I learned during the Sinatra days.” She laughs. “So that’s what I like to perform.”
Carroll admits that the filming aspect will require some additional concentration. “I like the intimacy of just the audience right there in front of me,” she notes. “The responsibility of being on camera is an added responsibility. It has its own perks and its own distractions.”
While Diahann has quite an involved history with television, from her groundbreaking role as Julia to Dynasty to her more recent stint on the hit series, “Grey’s Anatomy,” when it comes to the small screen she’s very selective.
“I watch the news,” she admits. “I supposed I should have a greater interest in TV.” Carroll does cop to watching “White Collar” on USA Network and “Two and a Half Men,” “for rather racy fun.”
She’s also a big fan of actor Kelsey Grammer, whom she views as brilliant, and says she can build a party around Turner Classic Movies.
“It’s a wonderful thing to have a great film that I can plan to watch with friends and know that it’s going to be shown in a way that allows me to watch the entire movie without being disrupted,” she says. “I love to watch old movies because of the lighting and the directing, sometimes the acting. I see it from a different perspective now than when I was younger and aspiring. It’s a great lesson as well as entertaining.”
One of the greatest life lessons for Carroll came at the cost of her own health during her very public battle with breast cancer.
“I learned how many people respond well to people with whom they are familiar and trust, like actresses and actors. It became something that benefited me [to be open] — I learned more about the disease, I learned more about the women who have made special choices. So it was really the best thing to do to say that I, like you, too have a health problem and I’m not exempt from having to worry about those major events that happen in our lives.”
Ever health conscious, Carroll believes that exercise is a major component in looking and feeling good. The day of our interview she had just finished working out with her trainer.
“It makes such a difference,” she explains. “My whole body, my metabolism is much healthier when the exercise is there. Exercise is imperative, because you lose your whole sense of your body—your step—your walk, your walk changes, your shoulders begin to hunch forward and look unattractive.”
If there’s anything Carroll is not, it’s unattractive. Her magnetic appeal has been attracting members of the opposite sex (and probably members of the same) since she first stepped out on the stage. And the feeling appears to be mutual, given the gender similarities of her three top picks to attend a mock dinner party.
“If you had a dinner party with three seats still available, who would you invite to provide the best conversation?” I ask.
“Well, you want it to be a complementary evening, so you don’t want someone who is a literary genius and someone who is not,” she astutely rationalizes. “Three people, who I would like to sit at the dinner table …” Diahann stops to think.
“How about if there’s just four of us,” she continues with a laugh. “Three people and me. That would be good. I’m a big fan of Charlie Rose. And I really enjoy what Alec Baldwin has to say — I’m talking about contemporary men now. I think he’s an interesting man, Alec Baldwin. I don’t know, and maybe Thoreau.”
“That’s an interesting grouping,” I comment.
“Not bad,” she agrees.
“Is there anyone you’d still like to share the stage with?
“Oh yes, lots of people!”
“Who would be in your top five?” I persist.
After a moment, Carroll says, “I saw a young man in concert the other day. Chris Botti. He plays the trumpet beautifully! And I love working with Michael Feinstein because he’s really got a great sense of humor as well as a great sense of lyric. I don’t know … Why am I thinking only of men?”
“Your dinner party was only men too,” I observe.
“Yeah, well, that tells you a great deal about me., doesn’t it?” She counters with a wry laugh. “And it’s true. I adore men. I don’t know how to be married to them but I adore them.”
“That’s the best quote of the day, right there!”
“It also happens to be the most honest …” she consents, laughing.
Back to the question at hand. “I would be intimidated by but I would love to try working with Tony Bennett.”
Excellent answer, I say, nodding my head.
We’re down to the final question. “Finish this sentence: I wish I knew how to …fill in the blank.”
“I wish I knew how to …” she repeats, thinking. “There are so many things, my heavens!”
“What popped in first?”
“Well, it certainly had to do with my personal life. I wish I knew how to … I’d love to be a wonderful wife. I know I don’t know how to do that, but I’d love to be a wonderful wife,” she concludes, then adds with a laugh, “as long as I don’t have to do it.”
IF YOU GO—Diahann Carroll, “The Lady … The Music … The Legend” live show filmed for PBS at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, Wednesday, April 21, as a benefit for the Annenberg Theater. Tickets are $100 (which includes a post-concert party) and $50 (performance only) and can be purchased at the box office at (760) 325-4490 or on the Web site.