In 1978 singer Nell Carter drew national attention for her role in Ain’t 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,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” “Your Feet’s 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 Ain’t 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 Ain’t 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 [Ain’t 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 ‘It’s 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 television’s 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 Ain’t 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 Ain’t 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 Ain’t 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: Agent—Triad 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 Carter’s 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 4’11” 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 Carter’s 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, “I’ve 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 Ain’t 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 Bagley’s revival albums, which feature the forgotten works of various Broadway composers. Describing the 1981 release Ben Bagley’s Everyone Else Revisited in Stereo Review, Paul Kresh related that “the menu includes such mouth-watering desserts as Nell Carter’s terrific treatment of ‘Black Diamond’ … and the lovely lullaby ‘Sleep, Baby, Don’t 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 City’s 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, it’ll only swing back and hit you later.”
Ben Bagley’s 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.
Carter, Nell 1948–2003
Nell Carter 1948–2003
Singer, actor, performer
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 Ain’t 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 mother’s Dinah Washington and B.B. King records and her brother’s 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. Carter’s 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, Dangerfield’s, 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 Ain’t Misbehavin’, which was a revue of songs by Fats Waller. She won a Tony award in 1978 for the role. When Ain’t 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 Ain’t Misbehaving’, 1978; Emmy award for TV broadcast of Ain’t 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, Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t 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 live—which 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 Ryan’s 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.”
Hair, United Artists, 1979.
Modern Problems, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1981.
Back Roads, Warner Bros., 1981.
Bebe’s 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 Bagley’s 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 Ain’t Misbehavin’ (original cast album); To Life! Chanukah and Other Jewish Celebrations; Misbehavin’! (with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus).
Cindy, ABC, 1978.
Final Shot: The Hank Gathers Story, 1992.
Maid for Each Other, NBC, 1992.
Sealed with a Kiss, 1999.
Ryan’s 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.
Can’t Hurry Love, CBS, 1996.
Sparks, UPN, 1997.
Touched by an Angel, CBS, 2001.
Blues Clues, Nickelodeon.
Baryshnikov on Broadway, ABC, 1980.
Ain’t 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 Berlin’s 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 America’s 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.
Soon, Ritz Theatre, New York City, 1971.
Ain’t Misbehavin’, Manhattan Theatre Club, New York City, 1978 then Longacre Theatre, New York City, 1978-1979 and Plymouth Theatre, New York City, 1979-1981.
Ain’t 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 Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t 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, www.allmusic.com (March 19, 2003).
(b. 13 September 1948 in Birmingham, Alabama; d. 23 January 2003 in Beverly Hills, California), singer and actress best known for playing in the Broadway show Ain’t Misbehavin’ and for her role as the spirited housekeeper on the sitcom Gimme a Break!
Born Nellie-Ruth Hardy, Carter, who took this surname as a stage name, was the fifth of nine children of Horace Lee Hardy, a sergeant in the U.S. Army, and Edna Mae (Taylor) Hardy, a homemaker. Tragedy touched her early; when she was two years old, she witnessed her father’s death as he stepped on a live power line in a field near the family’s home. Carter attended Lincoln Elementary School and Hill Elementary School and studied acting at Birmingham-Southern College, leaving before earning a degree. After moving away from Alabama, Carter studied at the Bill Russell School of Drama in New York City from 1970 to 1973.
Public singing came early to Carter. In addition to singing in church, at age eleven she sang on a weekly radio program called “The Y Teens.” At fifteen she sang at coffeehouses and gay bars with a group called the Renaissance Ensemble. When she was nineteen, Carter moved to New York City. She made her stage debut there three years later in Soon, a light musical comedy that also starred Richard Gere, Peter Allen, and Barry Bostwick. She performed in other shows, among them, Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair, and Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope in the 1970s. From her earliest days in New York until after she achieved her greatest successes, Carter sang in supper clubs, including Rainbow and Stars at Rockefeller Plaza and Feinstein’s at the Regency Hotel.
Despite her four-foot, eleven-inch stature and a rotund frame that varied between two hundred and three hundred pounds, Carter was a nimble performer with a commanding stage presence. She was described by critics as “high-powered,” “sassy,” “versatile,” “funny,” and “larger than life.” Carter’s Broadway breakthrough came in 1978 in Ain’t Misbehavin’, a role that earned her the Drama Desk Award and the OBIE Award. Critics singled her out for her work in the musical; she was described as producing “startling rhythmic phrases,” and in such songs as “Mean to Me” she sang “quietly, but with a silvery, delicate pungency.” She won the Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award for Best Featured Actress in a musical.
Starting in the late 1970s, Carter began making film and television appearances. Regular roles on television included spots on Lobo, Ryan’s Hope, You Take the Kids, and Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper; she also made guest appearances on numerous other shows. Carter appeared in such films as The Grass Harp, Modern Problems, Back Roads, Follow Your Heart, and Perfect Fit.
Carter continued to perform in the theater and, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, had prominent roles in revivals of Hello, Dolly! and South Pacific. Carter appeared as Miss Hannigan in the 1997 Broadway revival of Annie. But she achieved her broadest fame and commercial success with the television sitcom Gimme a Break!, in which she played an outspoken former singer turned housekeeper who was a mother figure to the children of a widower, played by Dolph Sweet. The show ran from 1981 to 1987. In 1985 Gimme a Break! became the first sitcom to be broadcast live since the 1950s. It was successful, and subsequently several shows have emulated this feat.
Carter has been described as having a “sharp, powerful voice, custom-made for belting” and “emotionally honest.” Her passion for singing allowed her to connect with both the general public and music professionals. In the Broadway production of Ain’t Misbehavin’, she stood out, even surrounded by four other highly talented performers. In addition to the original cast recording of Ain’t Misbehavin’, she sang on “Ben Bagley’s Kurt Weill Revisited” and “My Favorite Broadway: The Leading Ladies.”
Despite her professional successes, Carter had a troubled personal life. At sixteen she was raped at gunpoint by an acquaintance. Carter abused alcohol and drugs for several years, and she admitted to consuming as much as $2,200 worth of cocaine per day. She also overindulged in food, and at times her weight ballooned to nearly three hundred pounds. After a suicide attempt in the 1980s, she entered and successfully completed a rehabilitation program. Reared as a Presbyterian, Carter converted to Judaism in the early 1980s as she searched for a meaning to her life.
Carter also did not fare well in marriage. She married the mathematician and lumber company executive Georg Krynicki in 1982; the marriage ended in divorce in 1992 after a long separation and a final failed attempt at reconciliation. That year she married the record producer Roger Larocque, but they divorced in 1993. Carter had a daughter out of wedlock in her youth and adopted two boys, in 1989 and 1990. In 1992, shortly after the dissolution of her second marriage, Carter found out that she had two aneurysms. She had been suffering from recurring intense headaches and required two surgeries. Within a year she had recovered and was performing again. The experience inspired her to lose weight; though she was always plump, she slimmed down to less than two hundred pounds through diet and exercise.
Carter was described by acquaintances as honest, outspoken, and “a force to be reckoned with.” The actress Audra McDonald described Carter as a pioneer and an amazing musical theater actress, whose range allowed her to sing in the most intimate way and to “blow a song all the way to the back of the wall.” Among the influences Carter named were the singer Dinah Washington and the actress Bette Davis. She also admired the blues musician B. B. King, the actresses Judy Garland and Doris Day, and the singer Johnny Mathis. Over the course of her career, Carter won the OBIE, Emmy, Tony, Drama Desk, and the Theater World awards and was nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe. She was active in charitable work for AIDS education and prevention.
Carter died at her Beverly Hills home of what the Los Angeles County coroner believed was heart disease complicated by diabetes. At the time of her death she was rehearsing for a revival in Long Beach, California, of the musical Raisin, based on Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking drama, A Raisin in the Sun. Carter is buried in Hillside Memorial Park in Culver City, California.
Biographical information is available in “Oh, the Troubles She’s Seen!” People Weekly (28 Feb. 1994), and Linda Armstrong, “Nell Carter: ‘I Just Knew I Wanted to Be on Stage’ as an Actress,” New York Amsterdam News (10 July 1997). Information about the coroner’s ruling on Carter’s death is in “Quick Takes: Ruling on Nell Carter’s Death,” Los Angeles Times (5 Mar. 2003). Obituaries are in the New York Times (24 Jan. 2003) and Variety (27 Jan.–2 Feb. 2003).
Born Nell Ruth Hardy, September 13, 1948, in Birmingham, AL; died of natural causes likely caused by heart disease and complications from diabetes, January 23, 2003, in Beverly Hills, CA. Actress and singer. Broadway and television performer Nell Carter was best known for her role as a sassy housekeeper on the television sitcom Gimme a Break, which ran on NBC from 1981 to 1987. Carter also won a Tony award in 1978 for her stage performance in the Fats Waller musical review, Ain't Misbehavin'. The rotund, four–foot, eleven–inch actress had a powerful, sultry singing voice and a strong stage presence; she deftly handled roles in drama, comedy, and musicals with equal capability.
Carter, the fifth of nine children, grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. When she was a toddler, her father died of electrocution after stepping on a live power line in a field next to their home. She was raped at gunpoint at age 15, and that same year, four of her friends died when a bomb planted by segregationists exploded in a church. Later, Carter would say she found solace in listening to music, having a fondness for her mother's Dinah Washington and B.B. King tunes as well as her brother's Elvis Presley records.
From a young age, Carter sang in church groups, on the gospel circuit and on a weekly radio program, The Y Teens. Later, she performed in coffeehouses. At age 19, she moved to New York City to study acting at Bill Russell's School of Drama. There, she began to appear at nightclubs like Reno Sweeney, the Village Gate, Dangerfield's, the Apartment, and the Rainbow Room.
Carter's Broadway debut came in the short–lived 1971 musical Soon, which counted then–unknowns Richard Gere and Peter Allen in the cast. Carter also had bit parts in the films Jesus Christ Superstar in 1973 and Hair in 1979. She studied drama in London before being cast in Ain't Misbehavin', a compilation of songs by, and associated with, jazz star Fats Waller. It opened in February of 1978 at the Manhattan Theater Club and moved to the Longacre Theater on Broadway three months later, where it ran four years.
In 1978, Carter won a Tony Award for best featured actress for her performance in Ain't Misbehavin' and won an Emmy Award in 1982 for the television version of the show. Her rendition of the quietly soulful "Mean to Me" was considered one of the musical's highlights. Her other theater credits included Hello Dolly!, Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope, and Bubbling Brown Sugar.
In addition to her stage roles, Carter appeared in a handful of television shows in the late 1970s and early 1980s, including the soap opera Ryan's Hope in 1978 and 1979 and in the television series The Mis-adventures of Sheriff Lobo in 1980. She played the role of Nell Harper on Gimme a Break from 1981 to 1987, portraying an African–American woman caring for the three daughters of a white widower, who was also the town's police chief. For this, she garnered Emmy nominations in 1982 and 1983. One episode, in 1985, was broadcast live—the first for a situation comedy in almost 30 years.
After Gimme a Break went off the air in 1987, Carter took various parts in films, on television shows, and on stage. She did a voice–over for the 1992 animated movie Bebe's Kids, had film roles in 1995's The Grass Harp and 1996's The Proprietor, and appeared in episodes of the television shows Hanging with Mr. Cooper, Ally McBeal, and Reba. In 1997 she played villainous orphanage manager Miss Hannigan in the revival of the play Annie.
Even later in her career, Carter kept active with cabaret performances and concerts. Before her death, she was in rehearsals at a theater in Long Beach, California, to play Mama in Raisin, a 1973 musical version of the play, A Raisin in the Sun. In an obituary in the Los Angeles Times, her manager stated she had lost 170 pounds over the previous year and was eager to express her dramatic range in the production.
Eating disorders, alcohol and drug addiction, and other health concerns plagued Carter for years. In a 1994 interview, she admitted that she first tried cocaine the night she won her Tony Award. She finally managed to get clean with help from a 12–step program. In 1992, Carter had two brain surgeries to fix an aneurysm, and that same year, her grandmother died after suffering from Alzheimer's disease. In 1997, Carter learned she had diabetes.
Carter was married in 1982 and divorced in 1992, then married again that same year. She was divorced again in 1993. In 1989 and 1990, she adopted two sons, Joshua and Daniel. Carter died on January 23, 2003, at the age of 54; a coroner's report later ruled her death was due to natural causes likely caused by heart disease and complications from diabetes. She is survived by an adult daughter, Tracy, and her two sons.
Chicago Tribune, January 24, 2003, sec. 1, p. 11; CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2003/SHOWBIZ/TV/05/06/nell.carter.ap/index.html (May 6, 2003); E! Online, www.eonline.com/News/Items/0,1,11735,00.html?tnews (May 7, 2003); Independent, February 7, 2003, p. 18; Los Angeles Times, January 24, 2003, p. B14; New York Times, January 24, 2003, p. C19; Washington Post, January 24, 2003, p. B8.
CARTER, NELL (Nell Hardy ; 1948–2003), U.S. actor-singer. One of nine children, Carter grew up Presbyterian and sang in her church choir in Birmingham, Alabama. As a teenager she sang in coffeehouses with The Renaissance Ensemble and on the radio with the Y Teens. The 4-foot-11 singer moved to New York at 19 to study acting and performed in such local nightclubs as Dangerfield's, the Village Gate, and the Rainbow Room. Carter made her Broadway debut in Soon (1971), which featured yet-to-be-discovered talent Richard Gere and Peter Allen. But her real success came in 1977 with her Tony-, Obie-, and Emmy-winning performance in the Broadway musical Ain't Misbehavin'. Carter made her big-screen debut with a small singing part in Hair (1979), followed by her memorable role as the voodoo maid Dorita in the comedy Modern Problems (1981) and then lent her voice to the African American animated feature Bébé's Kids (1992). It was her success in Ain't Misbehavin' that helped Carter land the role of sassy housekeeper Miss Nellie Ruth Harper in the nbc sitcom Gimme a Break! (1981–87), for which she received two Emmy nominations. In 1982, Carter converted to Judaism before her marriage to Jewish lumber company executive George Krynicki; she maintained memberships at Los Angeles-area synagogues Temple Shalom and Temple Emanuel. Carter had a daughter, Tracey Hardy, and adopted two African American sons, Joshua and Daniel, with Krynicki. The couple divorced in 1989, and a 1992 marriage to Canadian record producer Roger Larocque lasted one year. Carter struggled with drug and alcohol addiction from early in her career, but was able to overcome her problems with a 12-step program in the mid-1980s. She also suffered from type-two diabetes, and in 1992 had two brain surgeries to repair aneurysms. After her surgery, she returned to the small screen from 1993 to 1995 as principal P.J. Moore on the ABC sitcom Hangin' with Mr. Cooper and to the stage in 1996 in the role of Miss Hannigan for the 20th anniversary revival of Annie. Following her death from diabetes-related complications in 2003, Carter left custody of her children to her partner, Ann Kaser.
[Adam Wills (2nd ed.)]