Question: My dad and I were talking about barrier breaking on TV and ended up in a disagreement. Wasn't Julia the first TV show with a black star in the lead? Ted A., Altoona, Pa.
Televisionary: Not quite, Ted. Shows like Amos 'n' Andy and Beulah featured black actors in lead roles years before NBC introduced Julia in September 1968, and Bill Cosby started working as an I Spy co-star three years earlier, becoming the first black lead in a dramatic series. But the first was considered to be racist and demeaning, the second revolved around a character cast in a subservient role and the last, a secret-agent show, wasn't exactly shooting for realism.
Julia, however, was seen as daring and groundbreaking when it launched. As a widowed nurse raising a young son by herself, singer and actress Diahann Carroll's Julia Baker was the first black, female character to carry a show that put her on equal footing with white characters.
As the story goes, creator Hal Kanter came up with the idea for the comedy after attending a speech given by then NAACP director Roy Wilkins to address the racial problems flaring up in various American cities at the time. His head full of notions about race relations, he banged out a script that grabbed the NBC execs. After considering such talents as Leslie Uggams, Ruby Dee, Abbey Lincoln and Nat King Cole's daughter Carol, network biggies decided Carroll was their Julia.
Soon after the show debuted, Kanter and Carroll found themselves faced with the kind of criticism that would be levelled at The Cosby Show nearly 20 years later: Because it was middle class, Julia didn't accurately reflect black life or focus on the real problems black people faced. "I don't know of any TV program that is a real reflection of white life, Carroll told TV Guide in response to those comments in 1968. "All television is divorced from reality. Look at The Beverly Hillbillies or That Girl."
Julia also came under fire for presenting a fatherless household Julia's husband died a war hero in Vietnam at a time when the emasculated black male was already seen as a shameful Hollywood staple. On that point, Kanter and his star didn't quite see eye to eye. "In every other TV situation comedy, Dad is a bumbling idiot," he said. "He can't change a light bulb without short-circuiting the traffic light on the corner. Is it better to have a stupid, fumbling father with a matriarch who really runs everything or to have, in absentia, a man of heroic proportions whom you can allude to and talk about?"
Carroll didn't quite see it that way. "To remove the father image, the strong center of the family, is a very damaging thing to do to black children," she said. "I can't argue that point."
Furthermore, the actress, while being consulted on script changes and character points, had no problem playing down any notion of real ground being broken or a light being shed on black America's real-life experiences. "I don't delude myself into thinking that I'm operating in the context of anything but a white society," she said. "The white community has to assuage its own conscience. Julia, of course, is a product of that. The white society has put a television show on the air about black people. Now don't you know what that's going to be all about?"
And there's where you have to credit Carroll for being clear-eyed and honest. Her show was a first, technically speaking, but she didn't try to pretend it was more politically daring than it was. She made that point loud and clear in 1970 when asked how she felt about her detractors, who criticized her for not being "real" enough and said she was a sellout. "Of course I'm a sellout," she said. "What else would I be? I've sold my talents for a job I'm not particularly crazy about. Isn't that what you do? Isn't that what most people do? I've been operating in the white world for 15 years. When Lena Horne and Eartha Kitt and I broke into hotel singing, we weren't competing against each other, we were competing against white singers, a white world. I've sold my talents where they'd get me the most money, the most success, the most recognition. A Jewish comedian doesn't stay in the Catskills, not if he's good. He goes where the money is. That's where I've gone."
As for conquering new territory, the actress harbored no illusions about her show and her part in the business; she'd taken a pioneering step, perhaps, but it wasn't as big as many thought. "The moneyed people, the managers, know they can deal with me. I'm 'acceptable,'" she said. "In fact, I'm sure that's why I got the part of Julia. I'm a black woman with a white image. I'm as close as they can get to having the best of both worlds. The audience can accept me in the same way, and for the same reason. I don't scare them."