Nell Carter’s life was a study in extremes.
On the 10th anniversary of her death, we look back at Broadway and sitcom star, Nell Carter.
Nell Carter’s life was a study in extremes. She endured personal tragedies and chronic health problems, yet she achieved a level of success that most young singers and actors only dream of. She knew both the pain of addiction and the triumph of successfully kicking her habits. And, while she made great money during her award-winning career, she also knew what it was like to lose everything.
Born Nell Ruth Hardy on September 13, 1948 in Birmingham, Ala., Carter was a singer from the beginning. She sang in her church choir as a child, and on a local gospel radio show. And she also knew tragedy from the beginning: her father was killed when she was just two years old, electrocuted when stepping on a live power line. Young Nell witnessed the accident.
That wasn’t the end of her early troubles. At 16, she was raped at gunpoint. She became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, Tracey. The teenaged Nell felt too young and scared to raise a child, and Tracey was brought up by her aunt Willie. Willie wasn’t the only sibling who was there for Nell during this devastating time – her brother Bernard was also a voice of support and reason, especially in the face of hurtful comments from their mother.
With the help of her siblings, she was able to get past her troubled childhood and stride into the spotlight. At age 19, she moved from Alabama to New York City, changing her last name to Carter and getting her show-biz start singing in supper clubs. Before long, she broke into stage work, with a role in 1970’s Soon, which also starred Richard Gere and Barry Bostwick. Carter started getting noticed, leading to bigger and better shows and finally her role in Ain’t Misbehavin’ on Broadway.
The role would win her 1978’s Tony for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical. Her big voice and dynamic performances brought her even more fame. She landed a role in the movie Hair, followed by costarring TV roles in Ryan’s Hope and Lobo. And then in 1981 came her biggest project, the role that screams “Nell Carter” to most people: Gimme a Break!
For six years, Carter played Nell Harper, housekeeper to a widowed police chief and his three teen daughters. As a confidante and mother figure to the girls, Carter got to showcase the many facets of her talent – she was warm and loving, sassy and funny; she could do physical comedy; she could handle storylines featuring social issues like racism and mental illness. And, of course, she could sing. In addition to recording the show’s theme song, Carter occasionally got a chance to sing within an episode.
Gimme a Break! was a hit and Carter received Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. Yet even as she was achieving her greatest professional success, her personal life was spiraling out of control.
In 1982, Carter married Georg Krynicki. Just 18 months later he left her because of her recently acquired drug habit. Carter had begun experimenting with cocaine while in the cast of Ain’t Misbehavin’, and the experimentation became regular use. She estimated that at the height of her addiction, she was spending $1000 to $2000 or more a day on drugs. She attempted suicide and struggled with her faith. It took several trips to rock bottom – each followed by a stint in rehab – before Carter was able to successfully kick her habit. But she did. In the mid-’80s, friend Liza Minnelli put her on a plane to rehab clinic Hazelden in Minnesota, where many weeks of therapy finally stuck. Carter remained clean afterward, and she later reflected, “Thank God I got help. God and Liza Minnelli.”
But her personal problems weren’t over yet. In 1989, Carter’s brother Bernard – her rock in her younger days, and still her closest friend as an adult – died of AIDS. Devastated, she left New York, where she had lived since the end of Gimme a Break! in 1987, and moved back to Los Angeles. There, she reconciled with Krynicki. The renewed relationship wasn’t to last, battered in part by Carter’s three miscarriages. Before they split, she adopted two baby boys, Joshua and Daniel. A happy period in Carter’s life followed, with her new sons and, soon after, a second marriage, to Roger Larocque. Carter was working during this period, with guest spots and TV movies to her credit. But once again, the good times wouldn’t stick around.
Not long after the wedding, Carter’s beloved grandmother died. While she was still reeling from that blow, her marriage dissolved. And as she was wrangling with the divorce paperwork and aftermath, she began developing headaches and odd sensory symptoms. A trip to the hospital in agonizing pain led to surgery for two brain aneurysms. Carter came through the surgery and made a full recovery, but that wasn’t her only medical problem – she also suffered from Type 2 diabetes. She managed her disease with insulin injections and spoke out to encourage others with symptoms of diabetes to get them checked before it was too late.
The ’90s brought several new roles to Carter’s career – a two-season stint on Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper, a role in the movie The Grass Harp, a turn as Miss Hannigan in Annie on Broadway, guest spots on Reba and other shows. But the decade also brought bankruptcy. Carter first declared in 1995. Another would follow in 2002, around the same time she was putting in guest appearances on Ally McBeal.
The new year promised to be a busy one for Carter, who in 2003 was looking forward to the release of a new movie, Swing, and an upcoming stage role in the musical Raisin (based on the play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry). But on Jan. 23, 2003, Carter died of heart disease, complicated by her diabetes. Though her career was strong at the time of her death, money issues still plagued her and she had just $200 to her name.
Nell Carter’s short life – she was just 54 when she died – was filled with highs and lows. But it’s cheering to note that what we remember her for is not the diseases that plagued her, nor the personal tragedies, money problems or addictions… it’s her work. We remember her Tony-winning turn on Broadway and, especially, we remember the humor, sass and heart she brought to her namesake, Nell Harper. Carter would be happy to know that ten years after her death, she’s defined not by her heartbreaks but by her successes.