Nell Carter (September 13, 1948 – January 23, 2003) was an American singer and actress. She won a Tony Award for her performance in the Broadway musical Ain't Misbehavin', as well as an Emmy Award for her reprisal of the role on television.
From 1981 to 1987, Carter starred in the NBC sitcom Gimme a Break!. She received two Emmy and two Golden Globe nominations for her work on the series.
Born Nell Ruth Hardy in Birmingham, Alabama, she was one of nine children born to Horace and Edna Mae Hardy. When she was two years old, her father was electrocuted after he stepped on a live power line.
As a child, she began singing on a local gospel radio show and was also a member of the church choir. At the age of 16, she was raped at gunpoint and became pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter, Tracey, who was raised by her aunt. She sang in guitarist David Walbert's jazz band The Renaissance Ensemble at his coffee house/jazz club Society's Child in Birmingham, Alabama in 1969 (Lee Edmundson, Personal History in Birmingham). At the age of 19, she left Birmingham and moved to New York City with The Renaissance Ensemble, changing her surname to Carter. (This citation is in error. Nell was singing as Nell Carter in Birmingham before moving to NYC (Lee Edmundson, Personal History in Birmingham). While living in New York City, Carter sang in coffee shops before landing her first role on Broadway in 1971.
Carter made her Broadway debut in the 1971 rock opera Soon, which closed after three performances. She was the Music Director for the 1974 Westbeth Playwrights Feminist Collective's production of "What Time of Night It Is". Carter appeared alongside Bette Davis in the 1974 stage musical Miss Moffat, based on Davis' earlier film The Corn Is Green. The show closed before making it to Broadway. She broke into stardom in the musical Ain't Misbehavin, for which she won a Tony Award in 1978. She won an Emmy for the same role in a televised performance in 1982. Additional Broadway credits included Dude and Annie.
In 1979, she had a part in the Miloš Forman-directed musical film adaptation of Hair. Her vocal talents are showcased throughout the motion picture soundtrack.
In 1978, Carter was cast as Effie White in the Broadway musical Dreamgirls, but departed the production during development to take a television role on the ABC soap opera, Ryan's Hope in New York. When Dreamgirls premiered in late 1981, Jennifer Holliday had taken over the lead. Carter also took a role on television's The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo, before landing a steady role as Nell Harper on the sitcom Gimme a Break!, for which she earned Golden Globe and Emmy Award nominations. The show lasted from 1981 to 1987.
Within a couple of a years after Gimme a Break!, Carter pursued new TV series projects. In 1989, she shot a pilot for NBC entitled Morton's By the Bay, which aired as a one-time special in May of that year. In this, Carter played the assistant to the owner of a banquet hall, and the focus was on her and her mad-cap staff. Alan Ruck and Jann Karam co-starred. NBC passed on the series development. In October of that same year, she performed "The Star-Spangled Banner" prior to Game 4 of the 1989 World Series, played at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California.
The following year, Carter starred in the CBS comedy You Take the Kids. The series, which was perceived as being the black answer to Roseanne due to its portrayal of a working-class African-American family, featured Carter as a crass, no-nonsense mother and wife. You Take the Kids faced poor ratings and reviews, and had a month's run from December 1990 to January 1991. During the early 1990s, Carter appeared in low-budget films, TV specials, and on game shows such as Match Game '90 and To Tell the Truth. She co-starred in Hangin' with Mr. Cooper from 1993 to 1995.
In the mid-1990s, Carter appeared on Broadway in a revival of Annie as Miss Hannigan. She was upset when commercials promoting the show used a different actress, Marcia Lewis, a white actress, as Miss Hannigan. The producers stated that the commercials, which were made during an earlier production, were too costly to reshoot. Carter said racism played a part in the decision. "Maybe they don't want audiences to know Nell Carter is black", she told the New York Post. "It hurts a lot", Carter told the Post, "I've asked them nicely to stop it—it's insulting to me as a black woman." Carter was later replaced by Sally Struthers.
In 2001, she appeared as a special guest star on the pilot episode of the new WB show Reba and continued with the show, making three appearances in season one. The following year, Carter made two appearances on Ally McBeal. The following year had her rehearsing for a production of Raisin, a stage musical of A Raisin in the Sun in Long Beach, California, and filming a movie, Swing. Carter's final onscreen appearance was in the comedy film Back by Midnight. It was released in 2005, two years after her death.
After Gimme a Break! began, Carter's life took a turbulent turn. She attempted suicide in the early 1980s, and entered a drug detoxification facility around 1985. Her brother, Bernard, died of complications due to AIDS in 1989.
She married mathematician and lumber executive George Krynicki, and converted to Judaism in 1982 (she had been born into a Roman Catholic family and raised Presbyterian).
Carter had three children: daughters Tracy and Tiffany, and son Daniel. She adopted both Tiffany and Daniel as newborns over a four-month period. She attempted to adopt twice more but both adoptions fell through. In her final attempt, she allowed a young pregnant woman to move into her home with the plan that she would adopt the child, but the mother decided to keep her baby. In 1992, Carter had surgery to repair two aneurysms. She divorced Krynicki and married Roger Larocque the same year, divorcing Larocque the next year. She declared bankruptcy in 1995 and again in 2002. She also endured three miscarriages.
Having previously survived two brain aneurysms, Carter died at the age of 54 on January 23, 2003, from heart disease complicated by diabetes in her Beverly Hills home. She is survived by her domestic partner, Ann Kaser, her son, Daniel, and daughters Tracy Ruth and Tiffany.
- Soon (1971) (Broadway)
- The Wedding of Iphigenia (1971) (Off-Broadway)
- Dude (1972) (Broadway)
- Miss Moffat (1974) (closed on the road)
- Be Kind to People Week (1975) (Off-Broadway)
- Tom Eyen's Dirtiest Musical (1975) (Off-Broadway)
- Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope (1976) (San Francisco)
- Ain't Misbehavin' (1978) (Manhattan Theatre Club, Broadway and US national tour)
- One Night Only (1979) (workshop)
- Black Broadway (1979) (Avery Fisher Hall)
- Black Broadway (1980) (The Town Hall)}
- Ain't Misbehavin' (1988) (Broadway)
- Annie (1997) (Broadway and US national tour)
- South Pacific (2001) (Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera)
- The Vagina Monologues' (2001) (Madison Square Garden)
|1979||Ryan's Hope||Ethel Green||11 episodes|
|1979||Hair||Ain't Got No/White Boys|
|1980–1981||The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo||Sgt. Hildy Jones||15 episodes|
|1981||Back Roads||Waitress||Alternative title: Love with a Sinner|
|1981–1987||Gimme a Break!||Nellie Ruth 'Nell' Harper||137 episodes|
|1982||The Billy Crystal Comedy Hour||Episode #1.3|
|1986||Amen||Bess Richards||Episode: "The Courtship of Bess Richards"|
|1989||227||Beverly Morris||Episode: "Take My Diva... Please"|
|1990–1991||You Take the Kids||Nell Kirkland||6 episodes|
|1992||Maid for Each Other||Jasmine Jones||Television movie|
|1992||Final Shot: The Hank Gathers Story||Lucille Gathers||Television movie|
|1992||Jake and the Fatman||Ethel Mae Haven||Episode: "Ain't Misbehavin'"|
|1992||Bébé's Kids||Vivian||Voice role|
|1993–1995||Hangin' with Mr. Cooper||P.J. Moore||42 episodes|
|1995||The Crazysitter||The Warden|
|1995||The Grass Harp||Catherine Creek|
|1995–1997||Spider-Man: The Animated Series||Glory Grant||2 episodes|
|1996||Can't Hurry Love||Mrs. Bradstock||Episode: "The Rent Strike"|
|1996||The Proprietor||Millie Jackson|
|1997||The Blues Brothers Animated Series||Betty Smythe (Voice)||Episode: "Strange Death of Betty Smythe"|
|1997||Brotherly Love||Nell Bascombe||Episode: "Paging Nell"|
|1997||Sparks||Barbara Rogers||Episode: "Hoop Schemes"|
|1997||Fakin' da Funk||Claire|
|1998-1999||Match Game||Herself, regular panelist|
|1999||We Wish You a Merry Christmas||Mrs. Claus (Voice)||Video game|
|1999||Follow Your Heart||Bus driver|
|1999||Sealed with a Kiss||Mrs. Wheatley||Television movie|
|2001||Blue's Clues||Mother Nature||Episode: "Environments"|
|2001||Touched by an Angel||Cynthia Winslow||2 episodes|
|2001||Seven Days||Lucy||Episode: "Live: From Death Row"|
|2001||Perfect Fit||Mrs. Gordy|
|2001||Reba||Dr. Susan Peters||3 episodes|
|2002||Ally McBeal||Harriet Pumple||2 episodes|
|2005||Back by Midnight||Waitress||Released posthumously|
|Year||Award||Category||Title of work|
|1978||Drama Desk Award||Outstanding Actress in a Musical||Ain't Misbehavin'|
|1978||Theatre World Award||Ain't Misbehavin'|
|1978||Tony Award||Best Featured Actress in a Musical||Ain't Misbehavin'|
|1982||Primetime Emmy Awards||Outstanding Individual Achievement - Special Class||Ain't Misbehavin'|