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.
— Geri Koeppel