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December 18: Hal Kanter and Diahann Carroll

Lawrence Bush
December 18, 2016
Hal Kanter, a screenwriter, director, and producer who created “Julia,” the first television sitcom (1968-71) featuring a black professional character (Diahann Carroll), was born in Savannah, Georgia on this date in 1918. Kanter worked on films with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, and Elvis Presley. For many years he was master of ceremonies for the Directors Guild of America’s awards dinner, and was “a dear man” and “a witty elder statesman” of comedy, according to Carl Reiner. “Julia” portrayed as its main character a black single mom (widowed) who worked as a nurse; Kanter created the show after being inspired by his attendance at an NAACP meeting, according to Diahann Carroll. (In the early 1950s, Kanter had worked on “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” which was widely denounced as trafficking in racist stereotypes.) Although “Julia” was boycotted by some television stations in the South, eventually it “became such a hit, they were forced to carry it,” Kanter recalled in a 1997 interview. “Bill Cosby in ‘I Spy’ [1965] first opened [the door], but ‘Julia’ opened it wider. . . . One of the recurring themes in the thousands of letters we get is from people who thank us for showing them what a black child is like -- he’s like any other child.” Kanter died at 92. “Radio is theater of the mind; TV is theater of the mindless.” --Hal Kanter

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.