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Carter, Nell 1948–2003

Nell Carter 19482003

Singer, actor, performer

At a Glance

Selected works


Popular actress and singer Nell Carter was best known for her Emmy award-nominated role as the sassy housekeeper on the 1980s television sitcom, Gimme a Break. She originally made her name on the Broadway stage, however, winning a Tony award for her performance in the musical Aint Misbehavin. The performer died in 2003 from complications of diabetes, which she had struggled with for many years. At just four-feet-eleven-inches tall, Carter was Blessed with a big voice and stage presence, Variety noted in an obituary. Robert Bianco concurred in USA Today. Carter was known for a comic verve that leaned heavily on sass, a dance style that sent her entire body shaking, and a powerful, character-filled adenoidal voice that could move the rafters, he wrote.

Carter was born Nell Hardy on September 13, 1948, in Birmingham, Alabama, to Horace L. and Edna M. Hardy. One of nine children, she grew up listening to her mothers Dinah Washington and B.B. King records and her brothers Elvis Presley records. She claimed she originally aspired to become an opera singer, but cited such popular singers as Doris Day, the Andrews Sisters, Johnny Mathis, Cleo Laine, and Barbara Streisand among her influences. Carters childhood was also marked by trauma. Her father was electrocuted after accidentally stepping on a live power line when she was young, and she was raped at gunpoint when she was 15. She grew up singing in her church choir, and began her career singing on the gospel circuit. When I grew up, [performing] was not something you aspired to, Carter was quoted as saying by the Washington Post. I was a weirdo to want to be in show business. Most kids wanted to be teachers or nurses. She was featured on a weekly radio show with a group called the Y Teens, and performed in coffeehouses and nightclubs in Birmingham before making her way to New York City at age 19.

In New York Carter studied acting and performed in such nightclubs as Reno Sweeney, the Village Gate, Dangerfields, the Apartment, and the Rainbow Room. She made her stage debut in Soon, but really made a name for herself on the New York stage in the blockbuster Broadway musical Aint Misbehavin, which was a revue of songs by Fats Waller. She won a Tony award in 1978 for the role. When Aint Misbehavin was broadcast on TV in 1982, she earned an Emmy

At a Glance

Born on September 13, 1948, in Birmingham, AL; died on January 23, 2003, in Beverly Hills, CA; daughter of Horace L. and Edna Hardy; married second husband, George Krynicki (a mathematician and lumber company executive), May 1982 (divorced, 1989); children: (first marriage) Tracey Jenniece, (adopted) Joshua, Daniel. Education: Bill Russells School of Drama, 1970-73. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Born Presbyterian, but converted to Judaism in 1982.

Career: Stage actress, 1971-03; television actress, 1972-03; film actress, 1979-99; singer, 1981-03.

Awards: OBIE Award, Drama Desk Award, Tony Award for best featured actress in a musical, and Soho News award, all for Aint Misbehaving, 1978; Emmy award for TV broadcast of Aint Misbehaving, 1982.

award for her performance. She was a pioneer in many ways, fellow Tony award winner Audra McDonald told the Chicago Tribune. She had the ability to be such an incredible comedic musical-theater actress, blow a song all the way to the back of the wall and then come down and be so intimate and beautiful in a ballad. Her other stage credits included Hello Dolly, Hair, Dont Bother Me, I Cant Cope, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Bubbling Brown Sugar.

In 1981, Carter took the role of Miss Nellie Ruth Nell Harper, a smart and sassy housekeeper on the television sitcom, Gimme a Break. She portrayed a matronly mother figure to a white California family headed by a widower who was the town police chief. The show ran until 1987, and gave Carter a place in popular culture. She earned two Emmy award nominations for her role, which revived the archetype of the mammy, an African-American woman caring for a white family, Stephen Holden wrote in the New York Times. In February of 1985, an episode of Gimme a Break was broadcast livewhich was the first time a sitcom has aired live in almost 30 years. The cast performed the episode flawlessly, and at the end of the show, Carter threw up her arms and yelled We did it! according to the Washington Post. She also appeared on television in the soap opera Ryans Hope, on the acclaimed PBS special Baryshnikov on Broadway, and returned to TV for regular series roles in You Take the Kids and Hangin With Mr. Cooper.

From early in her career until the mid-1980s, Carter struggled with drug and alcohol addiction. She was able to overcome her addictions through a 12-step program. Carter had also battled type-2 diabetes for years, and underwent two brain surgeries in 1992 to repair aneurysms. Even though Carter continued to perform through all of her medical problems, she was constantly in poor health. On January 23, 2003, her teenage son found her collapsed in her Beverly Hills home. When paramedics arrived, they declared her dead on the scene. The exact cause of death was not immediately known, but it was assumed to be from natural causes. At the time of her death, she was in rehearsals for a production of Raisin, a musical version of the classic drama Raisin in the Sun. She was survived by an adult daughter, Tracy, and two sons, Joshua and Daniel.

Despite her short stature, Carter was a larger-than-life stage personality who never did things in half-measures, Stephen Holden wrote in the New York Times. Along with popular singers Patti LaBelle and Jennifer Holliday, he continued, Carter belonged to a select circle of theatrical pop-soul belters whose members reveled in high-powered vocal flamboyance. A typical performance by Ms. Carter reached into the fabric of a song and tore out its seams with feral flourishes.

Selected works


Hair, United Artists, 1979.

Modern Problems, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1981.

Back Roads, Warner Bros., 1981.

Bebes Kids, Paramount, 1992.

The Grass Harp, Fine Line Features, 1995.

The Crazysitter, New Horizons, 1995.

The Proprietor, Warner Bros., 1996.

Fakin Da Funk, Octillion Entertainment, 1997.

Follow Your Heart, 1997.

We Wish You a Merry Christmas (animated), 1999.

Special Delivery, Calling Productions, 1999.

Perfect Fit, Atmosphere Films/Two Moon Releasing, 1999.

The Misery Brothers, 1999.


Ben Bagleys Everyone Else Revisited, Painted Smiles, 1981.

Kurt Weill Revisited, Painted Smiles, 1982.

Kurt Weill, Volume 2, Painted Smiles, 1982.

Leonard Bernstein Revisited, Painted Smiles, 1983.

Also recorded Aint Misbehavin (original cast album); To Life! Chanukah and Other Jewish Celebrations; Misbehavin! (with the San Francisco Gay Mens Chorus).

Television movies

Cindy, ABC, 1978.

Final Shot: The Hank Gathers Story, 1992.

Maid for Each Other, NBC, 1992.

Sealed with a Kiss, 1999.

Television series

Ryans Hope, ABC, 1975.

Lobo, NBC, 1980-81.

Gimme a Break, NBC, 1981-87.

227, NBC, 1989.

Santa Barbara, 1990.

You Take the Kids, CBS, 1990.

Jake and the Fatman, 1992.

Hangin with Mr. Cooper, ABC, 1993-95.

Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child, 1995.

Cant Hurry Love, CBS, 1996.

Sparks, UPN, 1997.

Touched by an Angel, CBS, 2001.

Blues Clues, Nickelodeon.

Television specials

Baryshnikov on Broadway, ABC, 1980.

Aint Misbehaving, NBC, 1981.

The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast, NBC, 1984.

The 10th Annual Circus of the Stars, CBS, 1985.

Night of 100 Stars II, ABC, 1985.

Never Too Old to Dream, NBC, 1986.

Evening at Pops, PBS, 1987.

Irving Berlins 100th Birthday Celebration, CBS, 1988.

The Presidential Inaugural Gala, CBS, 1989.

The 4th Annual American Comedy Awards, ABC, 1990.

Welcome Home, America! A USO Salute to Americas Sons and Daughters, ABC, 1991.

The Jaleel White Special, ABC, 1992.

The 65th Annual Academy Awards Presentation, ABC, 1993.

The 48th Annual Tony Awards, CBS, 1994.

My Favorite Broadway: The Leading Ladies, 1999.

Theater performances

Soon, Ritz Theatre, New York City, 1971.

Aint Misbehavin, Manhattan Theatre Club, New York City, 1978 then Longacre Theatre, New York City, 1978-1979 and Plymouth Theatre, New York City, 1979-1981.

Aint Misbehavin (revival), Ambassador Theatre, New York City, 1988-1989.

Hello, Dolly!, Long Beach Civic Light Opera, Long Beach, CA, 1991.

Annie, Martin Beck Theatre, New York City, 1997.

Also appeared in Dont Bother Me, I Cant Cope, Edison Theatre, New York City; Hair, Dude; Jesus Christ Superstar; Bury the Dead; Rhapsody in Gershwin; Blues Is a Woman; Black Broadway; Miss Moffat; Bubbling Brown Sugar; Be Kind to People Week; The Vagina Monologues.



Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Volume 37, Gale Group, 2002.


Billboard, February 8, 2003, p. 52.

Chicago Tribune, January 24, 2003, p. 9.

Jet, February 10, 2003, p. 48.

New York Times, January 24, 2003, p. C19.

USA Today, January 24, 2003, p. D11.

Variety, January 27-February 2, 2003, p. 46.

Washington Post, January 24, 2003, p. B8.


Nell Carter, All Music Guide, (March 19, 2003).

Brenna Sanchez

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Carter, Nell

Nell Carter

Singer, actress

For the Record

Selected discography


In 1978 singer Nell Carter drew national attention for her role in Aint Misbehavin, the Broadway show celebrating the 1930s black composer, musician, and comic entertainer Fats Waller, who was responsible for such classic songs as Honeysuckle Rose, Im Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter, Your Feets Too Big, and Black and Blue. A New York singer and stage actress for nearly a decade, Carter had always been cast as a belting soprano, but in Aint Misbahavin she found a vehicle for her substantial range and versatility, emerging as the star of the production. Her highly acclaimed performance earned her Tony, OBIE, and Drama Desk awards; a subsequent contract with NBC to star in the hit television comedy Gimme a Break further demonstrated her scope as an entertainer.

Profiling the Aint Misbehavin star in a 1978 article for the New York Times, John S. Wilson wrote that her singing voice has the raw, penetrating quality of a steel-tipped drill, and noted that Miss Carter adjusts her vocal style to bring out shades of wistfulness that other singers miss, wistfulness with an undercore of gutty determination. The writer further pointed out that when Carter can cut loose or get into a raucous vaudeville exchange her voice cuts laser flashes through the auditorium. Deeming the actress the Joshua of the [Aint Misbehavin] cast, a Time reviewer found that her remarkable voice can be as powerful as a trumpet and as plaintive as a flute, and when she sings Mean to Me and Its a Sin to Tell a Lie, she is like a whole orchestra.

Born in Alabama on September 13, 1948, Carter grew up with racial bigotry and was determined to escape it as soon as she could. While her family encouraged her to become a teacher, she felt that show business was the way out; a local celebrity with the singing group Y-Teens, she left for New York City at age 19 with $300 in her pocket. At first finding work as a folk singer and guitarist at coffeehouses, Carter advanced to performing pop and blues in Manhattan nightclubs after a successful appearance on televisions Today show. Stage roles soon came her way, including parts in Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Miss Moffat. While never unemployed, Carter admitted to Wilson that she made a lot of wrong decisions in her career, choosing lesser projects over such Broadway hits as Bubblin Brown Sugar and The Wiz. Even Aint Misbehavin began in a little downstairs barroom at the Manhattan Theater Club; its enormous popularity eventually warranted a Broadway run.

Buoyed by her New York success, Carter headed for Hollywood, turning to television and motion pictures in the early 1980s. She became the star of the hit television series Gimme a Break in 1981, playing a feisty

For the Record

Born September 13, 1948, in Birmingham, AL; daughter of Horace L. and Edna Hardy; married second husband, Georg Krynicki (a mathematician and lumber company executive), May, 1982 (divorced, 1989); children: (first marriage) Tracey Jenniece. Education: Studied acting at Birmingham Southern University; attended Bill Russells School of Drama, 1970-73. Politics: Democrat Religion: Presbyterian.

Singer and actress. Began performing on weekly radio show in Birmingham, AL, with singing group Y-Teens at age 11; folk singer and guitarist in coffeehouses in New York City; performed as a pop and blues singer in Manhattan nightclubs. Actress appearing in stage musicals, including Hair, Miss Moffat, Dude, Jesus Christ Superstar, Rhapsody in Gershwin, Black Broadway, and Aint Misbehavin; in television series, including Gimme a Break, 1981-87, 227, and You Take the Kids, 1990; in television specials, including Baryshnikov on Broadway, Christmas in Washington, and Nell Carter, Never Too Old to Dream; in television films, including Maid for Each Other, NBC, 1992; and in motion pictures, including Hair, 1979, Modern Problems, 1981, and Back Roads, 1981.

Awards: OBIE Award, Drama Desk Award, Tony Award for best featured actress in a musical, and Soho News award, all 1978, all for Aint Misbehavin.

Member: Actors Equity Association, Screen Actors Guild, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Addresses: AgentTriad Artists, Inc., 10100 Santa Monica Blvd., 16th Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90067.

maid in a white middle-class household. While some critics felt that her considerable talents were wasted in the situation comedy, the performer countered that a black woman in Hollywood has few options: The public knows what it wants, she informed Suzanne Adelson in People, blaming audiences more than the industry for black actors limited roles.

The 1980s were also a time of major change in Carters personal life. In 1983, she separated from her second husband, Georg Krynicki, whom she wed in May of 1982, and also began a strict diet in order to slim her rotund 411 frame. I was very sick, she told Malcolm Boye in People. I had diabetes, ulcers, an enlarged heart and an irregular heartbeat. Everything that could go wrong with me was wrong with me. And I was incredibly unhappy. Doctors told me I was obese, and I told them it was their imagination.

Tension was felt on the set of Gimme a Break when irritability and fatigue began affecting Carters work. By November of 1983, though, after having dined mostly on roast chicken and pineapple since May, Carter had lost 81 pounds and noted to Boye, Ive managed to completely reeducate myself into making eating secondary. I used to eat all the time because the food was there. Now I feel like a kid in school who is gaining points for behaving. And I love myself for it.

Aside from her role on Gimme a Break, which ran until 1987, Carter has continued performing in musicals, starring in such stage productions as Blues Is a Woman; she also reprised her Aint Misbehavin role on television and in her concert tours. Favoring theater songs over standard nightclub fare, the vocalist has made just a handful of recordings, guest starring on Ben Bagleys revival albums, which feature the forgotten works of various Broadway composers. Describing the 1981 release Ben Bagleys Everyone Else Revisited in Stereo Review, Paul Kresh related that the menu includes such mouth-watering desserts as Nell Carters terrific treatment of Black Diamond and the lovely lullaby Sleep, Baby, Dont Cry. And when the material gets thin, continued the reviewer, Carter keeps it going anyway.

In 1988, Carter made a concert appearance with an 11-piece band at New York Citys Village Gate, winning praise from Stephen Holden in the New York Times, who labeled her a solid, heartfelt southern soul singer. Continuing her work on television, she made a guest appearance on the show 227 in 1989 and went on to star in the 1990 CBS sitcom You Take the Kids and the 1992 television film Maid for Each Other. I never say no to nothin, the versatile Carter declared in Jet in 1989. If you close the door on something, itll only swing back and hit you later.

Selected discography

With others

Ben Bagleys Everyone Else Revisited, Painted Smiles, 1981.

Kurt Weill Revisited, Painted Smiles, 1982.

Kurt Weill, Volume 2, Painted Smiles, 1982.

Leonard Bernstein Revisited, Painted Smiles, 1983.


Ebony, September 1980.

Jet, January 20, 1992.

Newsweek, May 22, 1978.

New York, January 13, 1992.

New Yorker, September 5, 1988.

New York Times, February 24, 1978; April 18, 1988.

People, June 21, 1982; November 14, 1983; December 17, 1990; January 23, 1992.

Stereo Review, May 1981.

Time, June 5, 1978.

Variety, December 24, 1990.

Nancy Pear

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