The Tony winner and Oscar nominee reflects on her groundbreaking career and current roles in TV’s White Collar and in the feature Peeples–her first film in 16 years.
Actress Diahann Carroll
Tavis: Just to jog your memory, Diahann Carroll was the first African American woman to star in her own television series as someone other than a stereotypical maid. That was back in 1968, and the breakthrough role, of course, was Julia; just one of her many accomplishments down through the years.
Over the years she’s starred in movies, was nominated for an Oscar for her role in “Claudine.” Of course on Broadway she’s been Tony nominated for the musical “No Strings,” and, of course, on TV, in addition to “Julia,” she starred in that primetime soap opera – I loved it – Dominique Deveraux.
Diahann Carroll: I did too.
Tavis: In “Dynasty.” (Laughter) She now has a recurring role in “White Collar.” Her latest movie, “Peeples,” was just released, and so we’ll take a look at a clip from the movie “Peeples.”
Tavis: See, you still look too good to be playing somebody’s grandmamma.
Carroll: Well, you know I have two grandchildren.
Tavis: I know.
Carroll: Yeah. (Laughter) They don’t seem to be unhappy about it.
Tavis: Well, they can’t say this, you’re their grandmother. I can say it.
Carroll: All right, but you know, the whole thing is changing. Grandmothers are going to look like me for (unintelligible) and anyone else that looks like they go to the beauty parlor and they exercise and whatever. For the rest of my life, we want something that’s good.
Tavis: Why are you still doing this? I just listed – and that’s just top-line of your credits. You are iconic, you have made your mark, you’ve made a little money, you are in the history books, and you’re doing television still, movies still, singing still. Why are you working so hard? Why don’t you just cruise and coast a little bit? Rest on your laurels.
Carroll: Well, they pinch. (Laughter) But if my grandchildren lived closer to me, I don’t think I would work as much, but they’re in New York and they just moved to New York from London a couple of years ago, and –
Tavis: Getting closer.
Carroll: Getting closer. Grandma’s waiting. But it’s a wonderful thing to be able to have time with them, watch what’s going on, and when I don’t have that I’m very happy to be busy. I am. It’s a time for quieting. I’m certainly coming down off the – but I can’t let it go completely.
Do you think you’re going to be able to let this go completely?
Tavis: They may let me go completely. (Laughter)
Carroll: Then –
Tavis: I may not have a choice.
Carroll: Well, there’s always that.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. How are you – all jokes aside, how is Diahann Carroll? The last time you were on, I think, was for your memoir. I loved it, “The Legs are the Last to Go.”
Tavis: How are you processing your becoming, how shall we say this, more chronologically gifted every day?
Carroll: Does that mean I look well?
Tavis: You look amazing.
Tavis: But you are getting older. We all are. Which it beats the alternative –
Carroll: Well, yes.
Tavis: – so how are you, intellectually, spiritually, psychologically dealing with that process, no matter how well, how good you look?
Carroll: It is a full-time job.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Carroll: I will not deny that. As soon as I get up in the morning, what do we do to put another into the whatever so that we can be around a little longer? It’s a full-time job, and mentally, it’s most important.
Because I live with the doctors. Every week there’s one for this thing and one for something else. But I think they’re keeping me alive, and they’re keeping me alive very nicely. I don’t feel that I have missed anything in life. As a matter of fact, maybe I’m enjoying things in life a little too long, I don’t know.
But I can only speak from my experience, and I wouldn’t want to do it any other way. I just want my little stinkers, if they could, move to California. It would make me feel much happier. But then again, I think she’s in one of the greatest cities in the world, so.
Tavis: Yeah. When stuff comes across your desk at this point in your career – I’m working my way back to the film here – when stuff comes across your desk, how do you know what is right for you, what is honoring your gift and your status over these years. How do you make those decisions when these various projects come to you?
Carroll: That’s a very, very interesting question. Because at this age, all of the young men that I worked with through the years are now adults, and they’re doing whatever it is they think will be their life’s work, and sometimes, when I’m asked to be a part of something that I don’t really feel by one of these gentlemen, it’s a strange place for me to be.
There’s a pull that I would like to be supportive with everything I possibly can, and then there’s another side that says, well, are you sure you should do that? Isn’t that too – that leap is really too great for you, particularly now.
But as we all know, anything that has to do with something we’ve put together, we think it’s fantastic for everybody, and we’re thrilled with it, so that’s difficult. We have to usually sit down and talk about that, whether it is something for me or it is something for him.
But the joy in receiving these phone calls and talking to them, and some of them I started working, you know – I feel good about that. I feel not only wanted, needed, but loved, so it’s a nice place to be, to have those conversations.
Tavis: If the day comes when it’s time for you to step off the stage, and I ask this now – I just saw an invitation come across my desk the other day. Mr. Poitier, Sidney has a novel that he’s written.
He decided, though, some time ago, to stop acting. He’s not the only one who, at some point in his career or her career, made the decision that they would stop asking. If that moment comes for you, will you know it? How will you know it? It’s obviously your choice, but what’s going to constitute your making the decision that okay, I’m hanging it up.
Carroll: It’s difficult for me not to say what I believe is my truth, and there are other people who will agree – they disagree with me. “Don’t make it so honest all the time,” is what I hear.
There are days when I feel that I would be able to accomplish, let’s say, a show on Broadway. There are other days when my brain says, “Are you kidding?”
Tavis: Cicely Tyson is 88.
Tavis: She’s on Broadway now, five shows a week.
Carroll: I know, yes. We’ve lived different lives.
Tavis: Yes, yes we have.
Carroll: Cissy is very much into the vegetable drink and the pineapple drink, and I love chardonnay. (Laughter) I like the vegetable and so and so, but I do love chardonnay.
Tavis: I ain’t mad at you, yeah, okay.
Carroll: I don’t want any vegetables in my chardonnay. (Laughter) I just don’t. But I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s your whole whatever it is that makes you feel fulfilled, and to a certain extent I think it depends on how you’ve lived your life. I don’t know about consistency in your belief that you can really carry this difficult thing off, really carry it off. That’s a hard place to go.
Sometimes it requires a trip to the doctor, who will say, “You cannot do that. Do you know what you do to your nervous system or your back,” all these things that you want to forget, just think of them as one package walking around called Diahann Carroll.
But the hip bone connected to the, and once they say “I wouldn’t suggest that,” I’m not going to go against their recommendations.
Tavis: Yeah. But artistically, you’ve still got it, though. Well, clearly you still have it.
Carroll: I love it, and that’s why I think it’s still in my soul and in my heart. There’s really nothing as exciting as pulling something apart and putting it back together the way it pleases you to do so, and then to work with a director who has all of the integrity and sensitivity that he’s feeding into when you’re taking this apart together and then putting it back. I’ve done that all my life, and I love it. I absolutely think I shouldn’t stop just yet.
Tavis: Yeah. I think you should not stop just yet either, so I’m glad to have you back. So tell me more about this character you play in “Peeples.”
Carroll: She’s a wonderful lady who I think is very pleased with her family and what has become of – but she’s sort of gone, she veered off the nana track a little bit. She has her own life, and I think the children respect her and she is mad about her children.
So I like her. I identified with her. Many of the characteristics are my characteristics too, and she’s funny.
Tavis: So the character, just to kind of do this real quick, so Kerry Washington is the star of the film. She has a boyfriend who she has to bring home to meet her family. Her father, David Alan Grier, is an upstanding judge.
Carroll: Right, yes.
Tavis: You’re David’s mother in the film.
Tavis: David’s married, of course. But Kerry is the daughter, and she has this boyfriend who’s a little portly and doesn’t really fit the bourgeois image (laughter) that her family is –
Carroll: He’s fabulous doing it.
Tavis: Yeah. So he has to come, Kerry has to bring this guy home. Have you had that experience as a mother?
Carroll: Where my parents did not approve or where I did not approve?
Tavis: Yeah, both.
Carroll: Okay. This film acts; it sets up all of them. My mother did not approve, my father did not approve – yes, that’s true. And the Johnson family, which is my family name, I remember one very clear incident.
I was allowed to drive the car to the city to be with my friend for the evening, and my father, he got out of the car right there and he came walking over and he said to me, “Get back in the car and follow me.”
I said, “Daddy,” I’d discussed this with my mother and so on, “I have complete permission from even you. I don’t want to go back. I have a date,” and he said, “I’m tell,” I said, “Dad, you know something? You should be careful. I can have you arrested for harassment.”
My father (laughter) said, “What?” I said, “I can, Dad. I’m not 18 or 21, but I could.” He started laughing, and I think (laughter) –
Tavis: As he should have.
Carroll: I was trying all my life to come up with something that I could top, but that was (laughter) something that worked out well, thank heavens. But because I’ve been married several times, and it’s – I can’t say that I prefer one period in my life over another, or my sense of judgment, really, or my parents’ sense of judgment. Eventually they allow you to choose what you like. So I’m okay.
Tavis: Yeah, all right.
Carroll: You accept it as though you doubt it.
Tavis: No, no, I take your word for it. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when you told your daddy, a Black man, that you could have him arrested for harassment.
Carroll: The look on his face was priceless.
Tavis: I’m sure. (Laughter) That’s one word for it, priceless.
Tavis: I digress on that. I mentioned Kerry Washington, who is the star, one of the stars of this movie, “Peeples.” I want to be delicate in how I say this. My friends have heard me say this a few times now.
I am troubled. I’m trying to be as charitable and as generous as I can be here. I am troubled by the network, ABC, that carries the TV show “Scandal,” I’m troubled by the overdrive that they have gone into, making the comparison between the character that –
Carroll: Of Julia and the character of –
Carroll: – “Scandal.”
Tavis: “Scandal,” that one that Kerry Washington plays, and I’m troubled by that because of a number of things. One, because your character, the timing – when the series comes on in ’68 and the role the character plays, really was historic. There are two sides even to that story, which we’ll come back to in just a second.
But it was a historic moment, and I don’t know what the purpose is of continuing, everywhere I read, to keep making this comparison to Diahann Carroll and “Julia” in ’68. I’m a little bothered by that because of the distinct differences between the two characters.
So that’s my – I won’t go any deeper than that, but it’s been a little unsettling for me. But what’s your sense of it?
Carroll: I do understand that completely.
Tavis: You do?
Carroll: Of course I do.
Tavis: I want to make sure I wasn’t the only one.
Carroll: No, because you’re dealing with the characters as they’re placed on paper, and “Julia,” to you, represented something that I as an actress and the producer, director, mostly director, that we want from the character, and we’re looking for some growth.
There are areas of if I was a nurse raising a little boy, where is the deep connection between that and a young woman who lives in Washington who’s having an affair with the president?
Tavis: A married president.
Carroll: A married – well, yes, a married president.
Tavis: That’s my beef.
Carroll: That’s it right there.
Tavis: They keep making this comparison. I’m not saying that – I’m not Puritan.
Tavis: I’m not Puritan about this. I’m not saying that Diahann Carroll is better or the Julia character is better.
Tavis: I’m just saying that –
Carroll: The only thing I can tell you is I feel that the powers that be have changed a great deal, and their primary concern is – I don’t think they’re looking at it as thoroughly as you are looking at it. I think their primary concern is what are the ratings, and if “Julia” and the success of “Julia,” which was wonderful, is something that they want to tie together with the project that Shonda Rhimes created for –
Tavis: She’s a brilliant creator.
Tavis: I love her, so I’m not trying to demonize or cast aspersion on them.
Carroll: No, you’re not trying to.
Tavis: I just don’t like the network trying to spin this comparison that don’t really fit to me. Just incongruent.
Carroll: Well, I’ve heard you say this before.
Carroll: I do understand, because of course it was the first thing that entered my mind when I was told that the comparison was going to be thus.
Carroll: Then I had to think about it, and I realized what it is that is important in our television world today. It’s not necessarily the performance. It is the ratings, and we have to drop everything else and remember the ratings. That’s as far as – I don’t think they’re any more concerned with what I hear from you, and I agree with you. But I think it’s a whole new world.
Tavis: Yeah. That reminds me of a joke that I think maybe you’ll appreciate. I think it was Chris Rock and I can’t do a Chris Rock joke, but I think it was Chris who told the joke that Black people are always making comparisons, and sometimes the comparisons just don’t fit.
Negroes talking about Dr. King and Malcolm X, who were, of course, assassinated, and people talk about Tupac and Biggie being assassinated. He said, “Them Negroes didn’t get assassinated. They got shot.” (Laughter) He said, “Dr. King and Malcolm got assassinated. Them Negroes got shot.” Chris Rock.
But the point is that comparisons, they’re not always equal. They don’t always work. So I just – I digress.
Carroll: No, no. Talking about the characters, the character that Shonda wrote is light years away from the character of Julia, but that doesn’t seem to bother anybody.
Carroll: Both characters are strong, and the scripts are very interesting. “Julia” not as much today as it was then, but I think that the show has achieved something quite marvelous, and that is that we’re not tearing down the station, saying, “Why is this beautiful, young, successful woman having this relationship with the president.”
Tavis: Yeah. Again, and I don’t mind celebrating her for being successful, for having a show that she’s leading, for doing well in the ratings, it being produced by, creating by a Black woman. I celebrate all that.
It’s just that I have this thing about the kind of characters that we celebrate. You’ve got a nurse raising her child back in the ’60s, independent woman in a professional field that a lot of us couldn’t get into back then.
Then you fast-forward whatever it is, 30, 40 years, and you got a Black woman who’s sleeping with the president. That just doesn’t fit. But I digress. Anyway, speaking of “Julia,” though –
Carroll: I like that about you. I really do.
Tavis: Yeah, I’m a contrarian, what can I tell you? (Laughter) But you know that already.
Tavis: Speaking of “Julia,” though, I was reading – my producer on your show, Kim and I were talking about this and digging back into, because – and I was sharing with Kim what I thought about this and how it might come up in our conversation.
We went back to look at what the response to “Julia” was in ’68 when it premiered. You know this, you were there, you’re the star. So “Julia” premieres in September, in the fall of ’68. Back up a few months. In April, Dr. King has just been assassinated, Bobby Kennedy assassinated – ’68 a really rough year.
Tavis: So Kennedy’s assassinated after King. Then you premiere “Julia” in the fall of ’68 and not everybody was celebrating this groundbreaking Black woman as a character. Some thought it wasn’t hard-hitting enough. That the issues that we were dealing with the time, “Julia” was kind of above that. Do you recall that?
Tavis: What do you recall about the other side, the people that pushed back on “Julia?”
Carroll: I think really one of the highest compliments is criticism, the fact that you paid attention and know what it was all about so that you could criticize it. Okay. The other thing is at my age I do understand there is no such thing as bringing two people into a room and ask them to tell a story of what just happened in the next room and they’re going to tell the same story.
Carroll: So years ago, and I didn’t realize how much until Tyler Perry and Lionsgate gave me the opportunity to be a part of this, I didn’t realize how much has changed. I think our children stay with us not as long as our children used to stay with us – parents, I’m talking about.
I find that there’s so many young people who have no way at all to associate with someone called Julia. Yes, she had the baby, and if I say, “You don’t realize what a step that was at that time,” I have been asked the question, “What step? She was a nurse. She had a job and it seemed that there were a lot of white people that worked there too,” but they don’t do that.
I was at a dinner not so long ago, and Colin Powell spoke about what we allow our children to watch on television. He made it known to us that we are responsible for what they watch. We are creating something that we should be very careful that we should not allow it to happen to our children, and to ourselves.
So as we became more successful, now everyone has televisions in each room, and if they didn’t, it was strange – why don’t you? Why don’t you have a, you know.
The sensitivity to what was happening when I came along and when you came along is not there. They just don’t – “Yeah, I heard about it, yeah.” But the sensitivity, it’s not there. It just – and I don’t know if I should be glad of that or if I should be –
Tavis: Offended by it, yeah.
Tavis: But how did you handle the pushback that you got in real time in ’68 from Black people who thought the show wasn’t hard-hitting enough, that it was a little too soft, and it was a way to make white people feel good about themselves, because Julia wasn’t really wrestling with no deep issues.
Carroll: Thank God, I had come to this place of trusting my own judgment.
Carroll: As I said, you’re not going to get everyone to – but as I moved along, I realized how important that was, and if it’s important to me, that’s all that – if you don’t see it, you don’t get it – is that terrible?
Tavis: All right. No, it’s not. That’s your point of view. That’s your truth.
Carroll: That’s my point of view.
Tavis: I respect that. One of the great honors of my life was being asked to be the person to do the induction for your moment in the Television Hall of Fame.
Carroll: I didn’t ask you to do it for Cloris. I knew you should not do it for Cloris. (Laughter) She’s adorable.
Tavis: Diahann Carroll went into the TV Hall of Fame and I was honored to be a part of that, and I’m always delighted.
Carroll: I was honored to have you there.
Tavis: No –
Carroll: Really, it meant very much to me –
Carroll: – that you were there. I wanted everyone there in that room to see you and know who you are and what you are, so thank you for doing that.
Tavis: Appreciate it. The new movie is called “Peeples.” Diahann Carroll is in the wonderful cast, and you can catch her in her recurring role on “White Collar” as well. You are welcome back here anytime.
Carroll: Oh, thank you.
Tavis: Good to see you.
Carroll: I talk too much sometimes, I know that.
Tavis: Please, you’re wonderful. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.
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