Versatile Diahann Carroll knows a little something about “legs,” slang for longevity in show business.
Hers have carried her from singing and modeling in New York nightclubs to a groundbreaking career as the first African-American woman to star in her own network sitcom “Julia” and earning a Tony Award for the Richard Rodgers production “No Strings.”
She also received an Oscar nomination for best actress in the 1974 film “Claudine” and plucked primetime dramatic roles in “Dynasty” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” for which she recently received an Emmy nomination.
In her new memoir, “The Legs Are the Last to Go,” the 73-year-old Carroll looks back on an audacious career; four marriages, including her last and most disastrous one to Vic Damone; and romantic liaisons with screen legend Sidney Poitier and talk show host David Frost, as well as highly charged dust-ups with the likes of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Bankrate: It’s no accident that you’ve chosen the title “The Legs Are the Last to Go.” After all, your legs got you started in show business.
Diahann Carroll: I loved film. We went every weekend, and I could tell all of the stories over and over. I loved the actors and lived through any personal information I could get about them. I’m a fan!
Bankrate: How did growing up back then differ from today?
Carroll: The culture had many things that were wonderful for any young person to pull into their lives when I was coming along. The children of today are bright and very educated in what technology means and how to take their message around the world. But I do find that many of them are more insensitive. I think it’s being able to access so much information from what I call the machine, and text messaging and iPods.
Bankrate: You broke the color barrier with “Julia,” yet you always seemed more aligned with Hollywood glamour than the civil rights movement.
Carroll: Well, I did some marching. But you know, Hollywood was not exempt from this kind of behavior. I mean, there were battles to be fought in Hollywood as well, probably on a different level, but very serious problems having to do with not allowing us in. It was a closed shop. There were things to confront, and I think many of us came together to do it. It’s very dangerous to risk the anger of the entire film and television industry, so we were perhaps more cautious, but we were there.
Bankrate: You and Sidney Poitier seemed to work more within the system.
Carroll: I suppose so … he was very concerned that he had roles that depicted human beings that he respected. Yes, I think that was what we wanted to do. But that was another kind of prejudice that we had to live with at that time. It doesn’t allow one to (really become) an actor if you’re trying to choose your roles so that they will compliment and appease an entire community, like the black community.
Bankrate: As your star rose, you brushed up against the Rat Pack. Were they a little too guy-oriented for your taste?
Carroll: Yes, they really were — very immature, singing-on-the-street-corner stuff. There was another problem, which was how they dealt with women. Women really were to be there to make them happy and laugh. I think as they aged, they began to understand that they needed more than a Barbie doll hanging on their arm.
Bankrate: As a stage performer, you’ve worked on Broadway in everything from musicals to dramas. Was it hard to adjust to small-screen roles such as “Dynasty”?
Carroll: I think I felt that it was my responsibility to myself as an actress to be able to go from one to the other. It’s important, I think, to go back to the theater and have that experience and that kind of discipline. That’s where I started. There is something very demanding about having to do that exact same performance eight times a week. It teaches you a lot about yourself as an actor and what you can and cannot do.
Bankrate: You came from humble beginnings. Were you ready for the kind of money that came your way at a young age?
Carroll: (laughs) I don’t think so! If we think about what I did with the money, I was not ready at all.
Bankrate: You liked to live large and flash the cash from a very young age?
Carroll: I didn’t call it flashing. I feel when you work hard and you admire something and you want it in your life, you have the right, as long as you can afford it.
Bankrate: Where did your taste for the finest things in life come from?
Carroll: I think it is a movie concept, living through movies. My mother used to say that whatever you have to say to Diahann, please ask or tell her before she sits down to watch the film because once she begins to watch the film, she’s not really with us for two-and-a-half hours. And that’s true. I really sort of entered the screen and became a part of what I was watching, and I learned many lessons from the many characters that I became enamored with.
Bankrate: You were also ahead of your time in developing your own corporation and brand. How did a star-struck kid become a savvy businesswoman?
Carroll: I don’t know that I did, a fair businesswoman, maybe. I think the early days of someone trying to direct me in a more mature direction so that I could be aware of my own company and how to manage my company (were with) Harry Belafonte. I think he was the first person to ask those questions and give me some of the answers.
Bankrate: Were you ever concerned about money and financial matters?
Carroll: Not realistically. I learned to be concerned long before it was necessary to be concerned. Most assuredly, most women in my profession spend lavishly. Today, there are more women in business for themselves, production companies and so forth, and they are making deals that involve wardrobes and households, and they understand it to a greater extent than we did when I came along.
Bankrate: You always made a point to present yourself well dressed, well groomed and being driven in magnificent cars in public. That was part and parcel to your life?
Carroll: Yes. I wish it were part and parcel of everyone’s life. I think looking your best and presenting yourself as your best is part of your responsibility to yourself. Wardrobe is not just for looking beautiful. Wardrobe tells many stories about who you are to the person that you may be having a business meeting with. It says volumes about what you think about yourself, what kind of pride you have in yourself.
Bankrate: You were married four times. Did you learn any financial lessons from any of your husbands?
Carroll: Yes, I did. And some people to whom I was not married. But some had more valid advice to offer than others. Sidney Poitier was concerned that I might be someone who spent too lavishly. I definitely was high maintenance; I think I’m less so today. I couldn’t see every aspect of all these men all at once, and probably should have taken more time. Marrying is a very important situation in one’s life and should probably have more importance than the profession. But I think that as we look over my life, I think we can see that I put too much importance on the profession and learned little about some of my husbands until after we were married.
Bankrate: If you had it to do over again, what would you change?
Carroll: If I’m the same person, it would have been lovely to have had some more information from my parents and peers about personal relationships. That would have been helpful to me, I think.
Bankrate: You and Barack Obama both have audacity.
Carroll: Oh, I think that man is an incredible achievement for an American — black, white, Hispanic, Asian. We really have to look at that man and understand what an incredible human being he is and that as Americans, we have finally done something that is long overdue in the world that we live in today because it’s a multiracial world.