Diahann Carroll IS “Julia”

This post is one of a series honoring Black History Month.

Julia, which ran on NBC from 1968 through 1971 was the first network television series to star an African American woman in a setting and a role that wasn’t stereotyped — the anti-Beulah, if you will. The title character was a widowed nurse, played by stage and screen star Diahann Carroll. 

This wasn’t Carroll’s first “first”; she was also the first woman of color to win a best actress Tony, for her performance in No Strings (1962). Previously she had starred in the original Broadway production of the Harold ArlenTruman Capote show House of Flowers (1954) and been in the films Carmen Jones (1954), Porgy and Bess (1959), Goodbye Again (1961), Paris Blues (1961), Hurry Sundown (1967) and the all-star heist film The Split (1968). Mostly she was known she was known as a cabaret and nightclub singer who had released 11 record albums by that point and appeared on many TV variety shows.

In keeping with a lot of the pop culture of the time, Julia struck an integrationist note (not unlike the films of Sidney Poitier, with whom Carroll was involved for close to a decade). Carroll’s character lived in an upscale home, and lived in apparent blissful harmony with white friends and colleagues. Things like riots, assassinations, cross-burnings and protests that were very much consuming the nation at the time were not part of Julia‘s fabric. See Carroll’s quote in the TV Guide headline at the top of this post. She was up front about it in contemporary interviews; she saw the show’s rosy approach as a necessary phase in social evolution. But many on the left at the time saw its wishful thinking as harmful to genuine progress. After all, what’s the impetus for change if we’re getting propaganda that says everything is okay?

But the show’s three year run indicates that it was popular with audiences. It was a gently humorous sitcom without a soundtrack, reminiscent on the one hand of Bill Cosby’s first starring show (the now forgotten Bill Cosby Show which ran around the same time as Julia), as well as other “widow/ widower/ single parent” shows like The Courtship of Eddie’s Father and Family Affair. 

The other notable things about Julia is all the well-known people in the cast. veteran Hollywood actor Lloyd Nolan played the crusty old doctor she worked for; Mary Wickes was his wife. Other regulars and recurring players included Paul Winfield, Fred Williamson, Eugene Jackson, Ned Glass, Eddie Quillan, and Lurene Tuttle. Julia’s little boy Corey was played by young Marc Copage. 

After Julia went off the air, Carroll starred in the film Claudine (1974), seemingly to balance the scales, as it was about the struggles of a poor family in Harlem. Next came her CBS variety program The Diahann Caroll Show (1976). Her notable later films included Sister Sister (1982), The Five Heartbeats (1991) and Eve’s Bayou (1997). She has continued to appear on Broadway, and on television, and to release record albums over the ensuing decades.