Diahann Carroll Dresses Up 'dynasty'

updated 05/14/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/14/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The lady had just finished a Broadway run of a hit play, and she was suffering "a letdown," as she delicately puts it. "My bedroom became my cocoon," she recalls. "I just couldn't leave it." Like lots of truly blue American folks, she found herself dialing for drama on the tube. To her surprise, it was the nighttime soaps that she enjoyed and their women that she envied. But among the prime-time villainesses, she saw a void—and an opportunity. So she turned down the sound, rang up her agent and said, "I want you to call everybody you possibly can. I just feel it in my bones. They've done everything. They've done incest, homosexuality, murder. I think they're slowly inching their way toward interracial. I want to be wealthy and ruthless." Or as Diahann Carroll phrases her fantasy these days: "I want to be the first black bitch on television."

Cut to the lobby of La Mirage hotel. Up to the front desk sweeps Dominique Deveraux, an elegant nightclub owner bedecked in fur, diamonds and attitude. "I think we have a junior suite for you," says the clerk, and Dominique does not suffer the indignity gladly. "I don't sleep in my clothes, and I don't sleep with my clothes," she snaps. "I need a bedroom for me and a bedroom for my clothes."

When Diahann Carroll, 49, made her entrance on Dynasty last week, it was more than a career coup—it was a blow against one of TV's last WASP bastions: the prime-time soap. As the latest addition to ABC's riches-and-bitches hit, Carroll ranks as the only black actress with a continuing role on a current evening serial. "I certainly wasn't researching the number of blacks on TV," says Diahann, "but how could you fail to see they're not there?" Carroll's stint is no token appearance. Although this week's end-of-the-season cliff-hanger puts several characters (and actors' contracts) in jeopardy, Carroll need not worry. At an estimated salary of $35,000 an episode, she is contracted for at least 17 of next season's 29 shows. "We wanted a part where a black could be on the same social and economic level as the other characters," says Dynasty co-creator Esther Shapiro. "The one thing we wouldn't do is put on a black woman as a victim."

Dominique's role in the family affairs of the Carrington clan is a cliff-hanger too. No, insiders say, Dominique is not the long-lost mom of long-suffering Kirby Colby, the butler's daughter. Yes, she will regularly square off against Alexis Carrington Colby, the soap's diva of dirt played by Joan Collins. And just maybe, in the battle with Dallas for the top spot in the ratings, Dynasty will violate a longtime prime-time taboo by serving up an interracial love story. "Our intention is to play the characters in 1984 with an emphasis on character, not color," says Shapiro.

The introduction of Dominique raises the bitch quotient on a show that values only one thing more than money: cattiness. "Dominique is not out to outbitch Alexis per se," says Shapiro. However, the creation of Dominique did not go unnoticed by Collins, who wondered aloud if her character was being undercut. Publicly, Collins has been more politic—if no less self-serving. "I think it is wonderful to have another fabulous 'over 40' in prime time," says Joan. "We have had a couple of bitch-to-bitch scenes which have been very good. And of course, no one knows better than I that in playing a bitch you don't have to be one." Diahann discounts a feud in the making. "Joan and I are close enough in age and experience to realize that this is great for all of us. In the final analysis we will be good for each other."

For blacks in Hollywood, Diahann's stint represents an advance, even if the character is not exactly an ideal role model. "This is a major thing as far as we're concerned," says Willis Edwards, president of the Beverly Hills/Hollywood chapter of the NAACP. "We've been fighting for something like this for years." Linda Evans, her co-star, adds, "I don't think the impact of her coming on the show will affect only blacks. I think it will be great for all the people who see her." Diahann considers Dominique and her Dynasty contract a sign of the times. "I think my work has often been a forerunner of what has come along," she says.

Like a lot of stories in Hollywood, this one starts with Barbra Streisand, whose request that Diahann sing a song from Yentl at last January's Golden Globes brought Carroll face to face with Dynasty co-executive producer Aaron Spelling. After the awards show, Carroll and her manager trekked to a private L.A. night spot, Touch, where Spelling and his entourage were celebrating. Appropriately it was in this club that club owner Dominique was born. "When Diahann came in," says Spelling, "Esther Shapiro and I looked at her, looked at each other and said, 'My God, she is Dynasty.' " Recalls Diahann, whose manager had already approached Spelling, "The antennae were in the air because obviously Aaron had thought about it." When she met Esther that night, Carroll said, "If it's not me let it be someone, because it's time." Spelling decided the time was immediately. "We virtually closed the deal that night while having a drink at the bar," he says.

For Diahann, breaking the color barrier on Dynasty is a dash of déjà vu. As a performer she was pioneering at a precocious age. The daughter of a subway conductor and a nurse, she segued from a Harlem childhood to a modeling career at age 15. Two years later her vocalizing brought her first prize on a TV talent show, and her subsequent break onto the nightclub circuit was "frighteningly easy," even though she was only a teenager. "She used to get engagements in the mountains and I'd drive her up and back and chaperone while she was there," recalls her mother, Mabel. During freshman year at NYU, Diahann alternated club dates with classes. Then she dropped out of school and into her first movie, Carmen Jones.

Although Diahann won a Tony Award for No Strings on Broadway in 1962 and a loyal following in Las Vegas, it was her 1968 NBC sitcom Julia that brought her the most attention—and aggravation. As the first black actress to star in her own prime-time comedy series, Carroll played a widowed young mother with a nursing job and an upscale life-style. Both show and star were subjected to severe criticism. The heroine "would not recognize a ghetto if she stumbled into it, and she is, in every respect save color, a figure in a white milieu," complained one reviewer. "It was a very difficult time," says Carroll, who found the complaints a backhanded form of prejudice. "I tried to represent my people," she says. "Did people expect Mario Thomas to represent the Lebanese?"

To her dismay, the three-year run of Julia even affected her career-long constituency: nightclub audiences. "My first experience in Las Vegas after going on Julia was devastating," she says. "We lost all the gamblers." Not even her 1974 Oscar nomination for Claudine, in which she played a ghetto mother with six kids, could spark a consistent Hollywood career, as high-powered agent Sue Mengers once advised her. Explains Diahann, "Right after I got my nomination, I was on a plane to New York and Sue was on the same flight. She said that she had seen the film and thought the work was fine. I suggested that when we return to Los Angeles, we sit down and talk business. She said, 'Diahann, I would never lie to you. I don't want the problem. The people that I have—when I get up in the morning, it is a matter of choosing whatever it is that they want to do. I have choices. They're not more talented than you. But they're not black.' I knew this in 1954," says Carroll, "but I liked the way she leveled."

Such shutouts made her Broadway appearance in Agnes of God last summer, replacing Elizabeth Ashley, particularly satisfying. "I walked into the role without the dialogue being changed," she notes. But such colorblind casting is the exception. "It boils down to we're-not-going-to-go-with-a-black-actress so often you could kick the walls down and scream."

Carroll's personal dramas are as bittersweet as her professional accomplishments. They could in fact inspire a Dynasty spin-off. "Plowing through my history, I find it rather sad," she admits. Diahann has survived three marriages, two celebrated affairs and more than her share of family tragedy.

Adam Clayton Powell presided at her wedding to talent manager Monte Kay in 1956. After two miscarriages, she gave birth in 1960 to her only child, Suzanne. The following year, the marriage failed. On the set of Porgy and Bess in 1959, Diahann had begun a tumultuous affair with co-star Sidney Poitier, who was also married. This led to his divorce, but when he insisted that they live together before marrying, Carroll balked. In the early 1970s she was "the permanent fiancée" of British talk-show host David Frost, but they never cleared the aisle to the altar either. "The reality of what we were going into and the pressure it would place on us weighed heavily on me," says Diahann. Two weeks after that three-year relationship broke up in 1973, she married Freddé Glusman, a Las Vegas clothier. Within four months Freddé had filed for divorce. When Diahann was working, "Freddé became angry and jealous and violent and that was the end of that," she says.

Unlike her first two marriages, Carroll's third was not interracial. But it too was unconventional. Robert DeLeon, whom she married in 1975, was 15 years her junior and the managing editor of Jet magazine. After the wedding she followed her husband to Oakland and Los Angeles, where he pursued various deals and enterprises that never panned out. "He was very handsome, very lean, very sensual," says Diahann. "But he was basically a tragic figure living in a world of fantasy. He was quite unhappy, fought with all kinds of problems, some of which I was aware of. Some I chose to overlook."

Although Diahann cannot remember the dates of her first two weddings, she cannot forget March 31977. That was the evening that Robert was killed in his Ferrari in an accident near their Beverly Hills home. Earlier that evening, "we had dinner at home, and I had a rehearsal and he had a meeting. We said goodbye at the front door." When Robert did not return that evening, "I knew something was wrong," she says. The call came from a marriage counselor the couple had seen; his card had been found on the body. "I was standing in the bedroom," says Diahann, "and the counselor called me. I said, 'Where is he? What has happened to him?' " I had an image in my head of a wheelchair. He loved to drive fast, and I thought I was preparing myself for this horrible thing the doctor was going to tell me. He asked me to sit down, and I screamed, 'Tell me what it is! I know he's had an accident.' And he said, 'No, we've lost him.' Several days later I realized that I had pulled the hair out of my lovely houseman's head, and I had broken a lamp and begun to slam around the room."

Since then she has lived alone in the house she'd shared with DeLeon. "Really and truly I'm married to this Frankenstein I've created named Diahann Carroll," she says. "And unless there was an enormous understanding of that on the part of my mate and the need to compete with it, I don't know how I could make a relationship work well."

The single life no longer scares her. "There is much less desperation in my life today," she says. "I was raised as a Baptist, but I've found, I think, many more answers through therapy." (She has seen a psychiatrist since her 20s.) Observes her daughter, Suzanne, 23, a New York magazine editor, "She's much calmer than she used to be."

So is the relationship between mother and daughter. "As far as being black," says Suzanne, "she never carried any bitterness into the home. I didn't see much of the pain I knew she was going through. She really is an emotional stoic. But the older I get, the more I want to get inside her and find the pain I know is there."

Carroll's usual practice has been to let her career console her. And her role on Dynasty should bring some important fringe benefits, such as an increase in her fee for club dates. Diahann already possesses many of the accoutrements that befit a Dynasty leading lady. The high-fashion clothes for her nightclub act cost more than $50,000 a year. "I don't want to examine my financial situation one day and find that I've put it all on my back." Consequently, there is a Miró over the mantle and a Rolls in the garage. Forthcoming is another perk of appearing on Dynasty: a hardcover book. The contract for her autobiography, due this fall, was signed before her TV deal.

Diahann is already girding her family for Dynasty mania. "I have reminded them of the situation encountered with Julia," she says. "Dynasty will alter our lives, at least for a period of time." That prospect delights daughter Suzanne. "Dynasty is a big break for her," she says. "I hope it opens doors. I've seen things not work out for her."

It's a long way from Julia to Dynasty, playing a woman whose color is not an issue. Whether or not the times have changed, Diahann Carroll has. "I've learned to enjoy my life," she says. "I'm not divided and guilty about the fact that I want to work. The guilt is gone. I won't allow that word in my life, and I've forgotten how to spell it."

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