Legendary and award-winning actress Diahann Carroll —widely known for her trailblazing TV show Julia, as well as her roles on Dynasty and Grey’s Anatomy — died of cancer Friday in Los Angeles, her daughter, Susan Kay, told AP. She was 84.
Born Carol Diahann Johnson to subway motorman John and nurse Mabel Johnson in the Bronx, New York, Carroll grew up in Harlem, where her family moved when she was an infant. Carroll started her career at 15, modeling for Essence magazine but her heart was in performing: “I always knew I had to do something that was in front of an audience,” Carroll told PEOPLE in 2008.
After graduating from New York’s High School of Music and Art, she briefly attended New York University to study child psychology. Those plans changed in 1954 when she won $3,000 on a TV talent show called Chance of a Lifetime. Singing engagements at prominent New York nightclubs soon followed, along with her Broadway and film debuts that same year: Carroll starred in the musical House of Flowers and had a supporting role opposite Dorothy Dandridge in the film Carmen Jones.
Carroll’s other prominent film roles during that time period include Clara in 1959’s Porgy and Bess starring Sidney Poitier, Dandridge and Sammy Davis Jr. and Connie Lampson in 1961’s Paris Blues, opposite Poitier, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Also during that time Carroll and Poitier began a nine-year love affair, though both were married when they met: Carroll to her first husband, record producer Monte Kay, and Poitier to his first wife, model Juanita Hardy.
Carroll’s professional career continued to flourish in groundbreaking fashion. In 1962 she won the best actress Tony Award for her performance in the Broadway musical No Strings — a first for a black woman. Her trailblazing continued in 1968 when she became the first black star to play a role other than that of a domestic worker on her own TV series, Julia. The role earned her a Golden Globe for best actress in a television series in 1968 and an Emmy nomination for best actress in a comedy in 1969. She was the first black woman to receive the honor (she has since been followed by Nell Carter, Isabel Sanford, Phylicia Rashad and Tracee Ellis Ross).
In 1974, Carroll was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress for her turn in Claudine.
In 1983, she was the first black actress to replace a white actress in a dramatic role on Broadway in Agnes of God. And when she joined Dynasty in March of 1984, as the glamorous, jet-setting Dominique Deveraux, half-sister to Blake Carrington, Carroll became the first black person to star in a primetime soap. In 1986, she wrote an autobiography Diahann! with Ross Firestone.
Carroll told PEOPLE she found the pioneer label to be a complicated but tremendous blessing, particularly with regard to Julia. “The attention and responsibility were so stressful,” the actress-singer said in 2008. “But I’m enormously proud of that show.”
Other more recent memorable roles include Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Sunset Boulevard, Dr. Preston Burke’s demanding mother Jane Burke on Grey’s Anatomy and savvy widow/landlord June on USA’s White Collar. In 2008 she wrote a memoir, The Legs Are the Last to Go.
Carroll was married four times. First to Kay from 1956–62, during which they had a daughter, Suzanne, a journalist and screenwriter. After a failed engagement to TV presenter David Frost, she married Las Vegas boutique owner Freddé Glusman in 1971 but filed for divorce several weeks later. In 1975 she married Jet magazine editor Robert DeLeon. He died in a car accident in March 1977. Ten years later Carroll married singer Vic Damone. They divorced in 1996.
After decades in the spotlight, Carroll will long be remembered for her tremendous and trailblazing talent.