Carroll died at her home in Los Angeles on Friday following a long battle with cancer, her daughter Suzanne Kay confirmed to PEOPLE.
Born July 17, 1935, in Bronx, N.Y, as Carol Diahann Johnson, the actress grew up in Harlem and launched her career at 15, modeling for Essence magazine.
Her career as a performer though, was nurtured at New York’s High School of Music and Arts and — after a brief stint as a child psychology major at New York University — bloomed on a TV talent show called Chance of a Lifetime in 1954. The show won her $3,000 and singing engagements at prominent New York clubs shortly before she would make her Broadway and film debuts that same year.
On Broadway, Carroll first starred in the musical House of Flowers, while her first film Carmen Jones paired her with another groundbreaking black actress, Dorothy Dandridge. Carroll’s next prominent film roles, 1959’s Porgy and Bess and 1961’s Paris Blues, would have her star opposite Sidney Poitier, who she had a 9-year love affair with at the time (she was married to record producer Monte Kay, and he was married to model Juanita Hardy).
Going into the 1960s, Carroll became a large part of changing attitudes toward black Americans both within the entertainment industry and the country as a whole. In 1962, after starring in the Broadway musical No Strings, the performer became the first black woman to with the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical. In 1968, she was given the starring role of the network drama Julia. It was the first time audiences saw a black actress as something other than a domestic worker, and it earned Carroll a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Television Series in 1968 and an Emmy nomination for Best Actress in a Comedy in 1969.
Carroll would work steadily in TV throughout the 1970s and returned to the stage in 1983 to become the first black actress to replace a white actress in a dramatic role with Agnes of God, but it would be the role of Dominique Deveraux on Dynasty that would cement Carroll as a legend.
Deveraux was the jet-setting and glamorous rival half-sister to Blake Carrington, putting her toe-to-toe with Joan Collins as Alexis Carrington Colby. The starring role just so happened to also be the first time a primetime soap had a black lead.
The 1990s would see Carroll star in projects of particular importance to the black audiences and entertainers she inspired, starring as Whitley Gilbert’s mother on A Different World, and appearing in Robert Townsend projects like The Five Heartbeats and Jackie’s Back.
In more recent years, Carroll was one of the select actresses to play Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical version of Sunset Boulevard, and gained a new generation of fans as Jane Burke, mother of Dr. Preston Burke on Grey’s Anatomy, as well as savvy landlord June on the USA series White Collar.
Carroll wrote two memoirs, Diahann! in 1986 and The Legs Are the Last to Go in 2008. She was married four times. Her first marriage was to record producer Monte Kay from 1956-1962. After her engagement to TV presenter David Frost ended, Carroll married Las Vegas boutique owner Freddé Glusman in 1971, but filed for divorce several weeks later. Carroll then wed Jet magazine editor Robert DeLeon in 1975, but he died in a car accident two years later. In 1987, she tied the knot for a fourth time with singer Vic Damone. They divorced in 1996.
In 2008, the actress talked to PEOPLE magazine about how she paved the way for the next generation of black actresses with her role as Julia. “The attention and responsibility were so stressful, but I’m enormously proud of that show,” she said.
Carroll was among the trailblazing black women Halle Berry paid tribute in her historic 2002 Oscar acceptance speech, and will long be remembered for her enormous contributions not only to entertainment but to the country.