Nell Carter is best remembered for her portrayal of Nell Harper in NBC’s hit ’80’s sitcom Gimme A Break! but made her mark as an actress well before then. The late Carter was a successful stage actress before television, winning a Tony Award 40 years ago.
Nell Ruth Hardy was born in Birmingham, Ala. on this day in 1948. She began singing as a teen and was a member of the Renaissance Ensemble, which performed at clubs in and around her hometown. At 16, Carter was sexually assaulted by a man she knew and became pregnant with her first child, a daughter she named Tracey. Carter allowed her sister to raise her daughter as she pursued a singing career.
At 19, Carter headed north to New York City and eventually made her Broadway debut in 1971 in the rock opera Soon. This led to other opportunities, including acting alongside Bette Midler in 1974’s Miss Moffat ahead of her star-making turn in the Broadway musical, Ain’t Misbehavin’.
The musical transformed Carter into a star, leading to a Tony Award win for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. In 1982, Carter won an Emmy award for the television adaption.
Carter’s big television break came in 1981 with Gimme A Break! where she played a character with a backstory similar to her own. As Nellie “Ruth” Harper, a former singer from Alabama who ran away from home at 18, the character became the housekeeper and caretaker of a widowed police chief and his three daughters after befriending the chief’s late wife. The show was a ratings hit and Carter’s big voice was featured in its theme song. Gimme A Break! ran for six seasons on the network and afterwards, Carter moved on to a variety of small television and film roles.
She continued acting into the early part of the 21st Century but tragedy struck when she was found dead by her son in January 2003. She was just 54. Although the official cause of death was listed to be possibly related to diabetes and heart disease, an autopsy was never performed, per her will. Carter was divorced twice and was survived by her three children.
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