Nell Carter dead at 54
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (AP) — Nell Carter, who played the sassy, matronly housekeeper on the 1980s sitcom “Gimme a Break!” and received a Tony Award for her performance in the Broadway musical “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” died Thursday, her publicist said. She was 54.
The singer-actress collapsed in her Beverly Hills home and was found by one of her 13-year-old sons, spokesman Roger Lane said.
Carter had suffered from diabetes for years, Lane added, and underwent brain surgery in 1992 to remove an aneurysm. She recovered and continued to perform, mostly on stage.
Carter was in rehearsals at a Long Beach theater for “Raisin,” the musical version of “Raisin in the Sun.”
In addition to Carter’s Tony win for “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” she won an Emmy in 1982 for the TV version. One of the highlights of the show — a revue based on the music of Fats Waller — was her soulful rendition of “Mean to Me.”
Her NBC comedy “Gimme a Break!” ran from 1981 to 1987, and garnered her two more Emmy nominations, in 1982 and 1983.
In February 1985, an episode of the show was broadcast live — the first for a situation comedy in nearly 30 years. Carter and her costars performed flawlessly, and at the end, she threw up her arms and yelled, “We did it!”
She played the housekeeper to a family headed by a widower who was the town police chief, played by Dolph Sweet. After Sweet died in May 1985, his character “died” too and the show went through a series of plot and cast changes.
Blessed with a big voice and stage presence, the heavyset Carter prided herself on her range as a performer, doing musicals and drama as well as comedy.
Early in her career, she performed as a singer on the gospel circuit. She moved on to coffeehouses and nightclubs in her native Birmingham, Ala., before going on to New York.
She aspired to be a belter: a singer who gave her all. “You’re afraid you might hyperventilate or crack, but you do it for the excitement of it,” she said. “Head singers have to hold everything tight to get the note. I like belters, people who have that non-control but control.”
Growing up, Carter listened to her mother’s recordings of Dinah Washington and B.B. King, and her brother’s Elvis Presley records. She liked Doris Day, the Andrews Sisters, Johnny Mathis, and admired the work of Cleo Laine and Barbra Streisand.
Carter said she would have preferred to be an opera singer.
“When I was growing up, (performing) was not something you aspired to,” she said in 1988. “I was a weirdo to want to be in show business. Most kids wanted to be teachers or nurses.”
Nell Carter dead at 54