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. At the age of 19, she left Birmingham and moved to New York City, changing her surname to Carter. While living in New York City, Carter sang in coffee shops before landing her first role on Broadway in 1971.
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 popular show lasted from 1981-87.
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 1993-95.
In the mid-1990s, Carter appeared on Broadway in a revival of Annie as Miss Hannigan. She was very upset when commercials promoting the show used a different actress, Marcia Lewis, a white actress, as Miss Hannigan. The producers claimed that the commercials, which were made during an earlier production, were too costly to reshoot. Carter claimed 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. However, the ads did mention that Carter was in the show. “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 appearances was in the comedy film Back by Midnight. It was released in 2005, two years after her death.
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