Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Nell Carter


"When I was growing up, it was not something you aspired to.  I was a weirdo to want to be in show business.  Most kids wanted to be teachers or nurses."

Nell Carter was born Nell Ruth Hardy in Birmingham, Alabama on September 13, 1948.  She was a singer right from the start, first in the church choir, then later on a local gospel radio show.

When Nell was 15, she joined the Renaissance Ensemble, a musical group that performed in local business establishments.  They hit the road four years later, relocating to New York City, where she officially adopted the surname of Carter. 

In 1971, Carter landed her first role on Broadway, appearing in a show called Soon, an aptly titled musical that closed after just three performances.  Strike two came a few years later, when she was cast opposite Bette Davis in the musical Miss Moffat, which was based on the latter's earlier film The Corn is Green. This production was a box office failure and ultimately closed before ever making it to Broadway.

Her big break came in the mid-1970s, when she was cast in the musical Ain't Misbehavin', for which she'd win a Tony Award.  She moved on to other Broadway productions, including the popular musical Annie.  In 1978, she was cast in Dreamgirls, but ultimately left the production before it premiered, having joined the cast of the ABC soap opera Ryan's Hope.

But Carter was destined for primetime, and in 1981 she signed on to the role for which she is most famously remembered, Nell Harper on the NBC sit-com Gimme A Break!.  Check out the iconic theme song on YouTube.  The series was an overnight success and ran for six seasons, earning Carter Golden Globe and Emmy Award nominations. 

Following its cancellation in 1987, Carter embarked on a five-month national tour with Joan Rivers, performing in nightclubs across the country.  The following year, she attempted a return to primetime television, starring in the pilot for a new television series entitled Morton's By the Bay.  Although NBC passed on the series, they did air the pilot as a one-time special.  You can watch it in its entirety on YouTube.  Then in 1990, she landed a new sit-com on CBS entitled You Take the Kids.  The series was perceived as an African-American version of Roseanne and was quickly canceled.  You can watch a promo on YouTube.

In the mid-1990s, Carter returned to Broadway, signing on to a revival of Annie as the villainous Miss Hannigan, taking over for actress Marcia Lewis.  She'd never appear in the production however, after feuding with producers over a television commercial featuring Lewis, a Caucasian, that was still being used to promote the show.  Producers argued that the commercials were too expensive to reshoot, a decision that greatly hurt Carter, who told the New York Post "I've asked them nicely to stop it - it's insulting to me as a black woman."  The part was ultimately recast with Sally Struthers. 

In the early 2000s, Carter continued making guest appearances on television, most notably with recurring roles on the sit-coms Reba and Ally McBeal.  She was also appearing in a production of Raisin, a musical adaptation of the Broadway play A Raisin in the Sun.

For most of her life, Carter suffered from a myriad of health conditions, including diabetes and cocaine addiction.  She also had a family history of brain aneurysms, and underwent two preventative procedures.  But at 54, her body had had enough.  On the evening of January 23, 2003, her son Joshua discovered her body in their home, apparently several hours after her death.  Per a provision in her will, no autopsy was conducted and her death was ruled a heart attack.

Nell Carter was interred at Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, California.  She is in the top row of a tall mausoleum, making photography somewhat difficult.

Location: Acacia Gardens, Wall KK, Crypt 7040
Inscription: A Loving Mother And a Sparkling Jewel to Those Close Enough to Love Her

Rest in peace, Miss Carter.


  • Carter's father met with tragedy when Nell was just two years old.  In full view of his daughter, he mistakenly stepped on a live power line and was killed instantly.

  • Prior to her first marriage in 1982, Carter converted to Judaism.  She remained active in the faith for the rest of her life.

  • Carter has the distinction of having won two awards for the same performance.  In 1978, she won the Tony Award for her role in the Broadway musical Ain't Misbehavin'.  Then in 1982, she won an Emmy Award for a televised broadcast of the show.

  • On more than one occasion, Carter performed The Star Spangled Banner at Major League Baseball games, including Game 4 of the 1989 World Series.  Here's a performance from April 1997 at Shea Stadium.

  • Carter's bisexuality was a well-guarded secret.  Although she was married and divorced twice, she spent her final years with partner Ann Kaser.

  • Carter died nearly penniless, with just $200 in her bank account. 

  • This blogger attended a taping of the Bill Maher series Politically Incorrect in 1997.  One of the panelists that night was Nell Carter.  Other guests that night included Billy Connolly and some country singer who's name I've long since forgotten.  I do remember Maher's tacky introduction of Carter though.  "And from her Jenny Craig commercials, here's Nell Carter!"

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