Shonda Rhimes on Casting Childhood Idol Diahann Carroll in 'Grey's Anatomy'

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Shonda Rhimes (left) and Diahann Carroll

The prolific TV creator was "freaked out" when the actress, who died Oct. 4 at age 84, agreed to play Preston's mother: "It was a really big deal for me."

I first saw her in movies, because I watched a lot of old movies growing up. But she was the first African American woman with a show on network television, and she did it in a beautiful, dignified, elegant way. She didn't play anybody's maid. I remember she had this quote — I liked it so much, I wrote it down — "If you're not invited to the party, throw your own" — and that's what she did. She threw her own party.

I remember at one point in Grey's Anatomy, I had to figure out who to cast as Preston’s mother and I thought, well, "Let's ask Diahann Carroll, but it will never happen in a million years." And when she said yes, I freaked out. How do you cope with the concept of Diahann Carroll actually coming to the set, saying lines that you’ve written? It was a really big deal for me. And when we first met, the first thing she said to me was, "Do you want me to be me or do you want me to be Diahann Carroll?" I'm not even sure what she meant by that — maybe that she could play a little old grandmother or her usual fabulous self — and I said, "Well, I want Diahann Carroll." And she said, "Fine, that's good."

She gave such great advice, some stuff I will always cherish about working in this business and just being who you are, about how to be a woman, how to stand in this strange light you're cast in. There was a very odd spotlight on me — I was feeling very visible in a way that I wasn't sure I was comfortable with — and she saw that and understood it and provided me with some mentorship that was special. The last time I saw her was at an Essence Black Women in Hollywood Awards. We took a group photo and it's literally sitting on my desk. It's an amazing picture of me and Janelle Monáe and Issa Rae and Angela Bassett and Alfre Woodard and Tracee Ellis Ross. Before the picture was taken, we were all chattering and talking, but Diahann was looking directly into the camera. And she said, "Ladies, this is a moment." And we all got quiet. But she was right. It was a moment.

A version of this story appears in the Oct. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.