Nell Carter, who died January 23 at age 54, will be remembered by many for her tough-as-nails, but also motherly and loving housekeeper, Nell Harper on the NBC sitcom Gimme a Break!. To be honest, I was never a fan of the show. But I watched it, in order to see Carter.
What first attracted me to Carter was her singing voice, one of the 20th century’s most unique and gifted instruments. Granted, she didn’t have a Top 40 hit or a gold album on her resume. And, despite her incredible jazz styling, she never enjoyed the kind of recording success that Diana Krall and Diane Schurr have achieved. Nevertheless, Carter could infuse a classic love song with tongue-in-cheek sarcasm or convey an intimacy that would rip your heart out. Today’s rappers, such as Missy Elliot and Queen Latifah, owe much of the sass and energy that they display in their vocal performances to the take-no-prisoners performance Carter gave in her star-making role in Ain’t Misbehavin’.
During her early career, Carter performed in the nightclubs and coffeehouses of her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. She eventually moved to New York, where she landed roles on the soap opera, Ryan’s Hope, and on the TV series, The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo. But it wasn’t until her appearance in the 1978 Broadway musical revue, Ain’t Misbehavin’, a tribute to the music of Fats Waller, that critics and fans alike took notice of her.
While she stood only 4’ 11”, Carter stole the spotlight the moment she stepped on the stage in the show’s opening number, slinging her attitude across the stage, filling the theater with her powerful, nasally voice. By show’s end, Carter proved she could do it all: sensual and playful with Ken Paige on “Honeysuckle Rose,” fun and funny in her rapid-fire delivery of “Cash for Your Trash,” vengeful and fierce with Andre DeShields on “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie.”
For all this, it was her heartrending interpretation of “Mean to Me” that truly wowed audiences. The song had been released as a traditional pop song in the ‘30s, but Carter made it a testament to the anguish and pain that a woman scorned must feel. Her phrasing gave the song a new depth, as she paused in places no other songstress would consider doing: “You’re mean . . . to me / Why… must you be . . . mean to me?” Her extraordinary performance earned her a Tony Award, and, when the musical was broadcast on television in 1982, an Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement.
That same year, Carter also received the first of her two Emmy nominations for Best Actress in a Comedy Series for her beloved role on Gimme a Break!. The series, which ran from 1981 to 1987, cast Carter as the housekeeper to a small town sheriff and widower (Dolph Sweet), and surrogate mother to his three daughters.
The show was hardly classic, even by sitcom standards; often times, the scripts were predictable and the younger actors were no match for Carter’s comedic timing. Nevertheless, it was a hit, largely owing to viewers’ affection for her acerbic wit and wide-eyed, don’t-fuck-with-me delivery. Whether going head to head with Sweet or comforting the young girls, Carter was always believable. She was the friend we wanted to have, the parent we respected, the employee who might give us headaches, but was usually right. The other roles on the series could have been cast with anybody; without Nell Carter at the helm, Gimme a Break! would have disappeared overnight.
After the series was cancelled, Carter worked sporadically, hampered by her battles with drugs and diabetes, and a 1992 brain surgery to remove an aneurysm. But she kept working, in such films as Maid For Each Other, Sealed With a Kiss, and The Grass Harp. She also continued to do television work, guesting on such shows as Hanging With Mr. Cooper and Ally McBeal, and doing voice-over work for the animated series Bebe’s Kids and Spider-Man. In 1997, Carter returned to Broadway as Miss Hannigan in the revival of Annie. More recently, she finished filming Swing, due out this summer, playing an angel sent to earth to aid an up-and-coming singer. At the time of her death, she was in rehearsals in Los Angeles for Raisin. I have no doubt that she would have made the role of Momma her own, and would have exhibited once again her powerful stage presence.
I became familiar with Nell Carter in 1978 when my father, a huge lover of Fats Waller’s music, insisted that I listen to the cast recording of Ain’t Misbehavin’, in hopes that I too would become a fan of Waller. I did indeed like Fats Waller, but I loved Nell Carter. Twenty-four years after that first encounter, I have found no other vocalist who can amuse, enthrall, and captivate me the way she did.