So in my recent piece about Eartha Kitt playing the role of Catwoman on the old Batman ABC TV series in 1968, I stated that year was also the year of the NBC TV series Julia with Diahann Carroll which I mentioned I had once written about on S & A.
I had to dig around for it and found that I wrote the piece over two years ago. But since we now have so many new readers, and I’m sure many of whom have never heard of or seen the show, I decided to bring the piece back again.
But for those of you who don’t know about it, I realize how hard it must be to imagine now (especially if you watch the clip from the show below), and if you were born long after the series came and went, what an incredible sensation it was, as well as the extraordinary controversy which occurred, when NBC premiered it in September 1968.
The show was a half hour sit-com, revolving about the life of a young widow played by Carroll who worked as a nurse for a cantankerous, but lovable doctor (Lloyd Nolan) while raising her precocious young son Corey, played by Marc Coppage.
It was one of the first network TV shows to feature a black person in the lead, and an even rarer one to feature a black woman in the lead role ( I Spy with Bill Cosby came out three years earlier but he was the co-star not the lead).
There had been the old TV show from the 50′s, Beulah, about a black maid, which was loaded up to the gills with over-the-top black stereotypes. But here was a show about a young, beautiful, independent black woman with a career, in the lead, and you’ll be hard pressed to name similar others, and even if you can, it’s less than a handful outside of Scandal.
The show was a ratings smash when it premiered, and for three seasons did extremely well. So popular that they even came out with a child’s school lunchbox (see below). Can you imagine a Basketball Wives lunchbox? You might get cooties.
But Julia was mired neck deep in controversy from the very beginning. Remember the show premiered just months after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, cities were aflame with race riots, there were violent college demonstrations and the bloody Vietnam War was raging on with a very unpopular president in the White House.
Many people, especially black people, felt that Julia was too unrealistic, too tame and should have dealt with the issues of the time in a more direct and honest way. Then again, this was a network TV sit-com and that it would have been impossible for any show to realistically deal with very real social issues, and even harder to get an audience.
Even Harry Belafonte, a friend of Carroll, launched, she once said, “a full scale assault on Julia then asked me not to do it”. Several black writers were brought on the show to write episodes and Carroll would go over each script careful looking “for blatant examples of racism or just plain ignorance,” and that on occasion, she “ran into serious problems” with the producers.
Several black actors regularly got work on the show, along with Carroll, incuding Diana Sands who played Julia’s cousin in 13 episodes of the show.
But after the third season, Carroll felt the show had run its course, was tired of the daily grind, and didn’t renew her contract to continue the show. You have to keep in mind that back then the typical TV series usually ran 39 episodes a year, not the 18-20 episodes a season now. Back in the day, TV actors worked very hard for the money.
It didn’t help either that the controversy and the fighting behind the scenes took a heavy psychological and emotional toll on Carroll, and she had to be hospitalized twice, as she explains in the interview clip below.
Though, to its credit, Julia did occasionally deal with racism and racial tension, but in a laid back, family friendly, why-can’t-we-get-along sort of way. But it was not possible for any TV show during that period to be a realistic barometer of the times, and Carroll was unjustly attacked for not letting her character be more militant and “angry”. The show was designed as network entertainment and not a dissertation on the social order and conflicts of the era.
And as you can see from the clip below, from one of the episodes, it may seem now very corny and totally outdated, but it was very typical in style and approach to all the other network sitcoms of that time.
But considering the black images one finds on TV today (you know, like RHOA or Basketball Wives, or whatever shows where they have black women fihgting and spitting on each other) you have to admit that Julia now looks pretty good.