Birmingham native Nell Carter (1948-2003) first came to public attention as a Broadway performer, but she achieved her most lasting fame as the star of the television series Gimme A Break! The diminutive but commanding Carter overcame a difficult and traumatic childhood to achieve a successful career as a singer and dancer in several theater productions in New York during the 1970s, including her most acclaimed show, Ain't Misbehavin'. She then reinvented herself as a television star, taking on the role of the brash housekeeper on Gimme A Break! Plagued by health problems and a turbulent private life, Carter died at the age of 54 while preparing for a new theatrical role.
Nell Carter was born Nell Ruth Hardy in Birmingham, Jefferson County, on September 13, 1948, to Horace and Edna Mae Humphrey Hardy. She was one of nine children. Nell displayed an early love for music and began singing in her local church choir. She soon progressed to appearing on a local radio show and performed with gospel groups as well. Early misfortunes would set the tone for Hardy's later life. Her father was electrocuted after stepping on a power line when she was a child, and at age 15, she was sexually assaulted at gunpoint and bore a child, whom she named Tracey, as a result of the rape.
After graduating from Birmingham's Parker High School, Hardy continued to perform locally but soon moved to New York City to pursue better opportunities. It was around this time that she changed her last name to Carter. She performed in a variety of venues, including cabarets and nightclubs in the evenings, and from 1970 to 1972 also studied at the School of Drama established by basketball player turned actor Bill Russell. Also during this time, Carter earned a small part on the soap opera Ryan's Hope. After appearing in several Broadway productions, Carter traveled to London, England, for more theatrical training.
Upon her return to the United States in 1978, she was cast in the musical that would make her famous: Ain't Misbehavin', a tribute to the Harlem Renaissance featuring songs by renowned Jazz Age composer Thomas Wright "Fats" Waller. The show, which ran for four years, brought great acclaim to Carter, who received a Tony Award for her performance. In 1979, she was exposed to a whole new audience with a turn as a police sergeant on the television series The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo and a part in Milos Forman's film version of the Broadway musical Hair! Sensing her appeal, network executives offered her the lead role in the sitcom Gimme A Break! in 1982. She also married mathematician and lumber company executive George Krynicki and converted to Judaism. That same year, Carter reunited with the rest of the original cast of Ain't Misbehavin' and performed in a show that was taped live. Carter won an Emmy Award for her performance and earned two more during her six seasons as the sassy housekeeper on Gimme A Break! The cast of Ain't Misbehavin' reunited again in 1988 for a revival of the show on Broadway.
In contrast to her professional success, Carter's personal life was turbulent. During the early 1980s, she battled with alcoholism and cocaine addiction and even attempted suicide before entering the Hazelden treatment facility in Minnesota around 1985. She also suffered from diabetes and other medical problems resulting from her obesity. Despite her illnesses, she adopted two infant boys, Joshua and Daniel, in 1989 and 1990, respectively. Two years later, however, she divorced Krynicki and married Canadian record producer Roger Larocque. This marriage ended in divorce one year later.
During the 1990s, Carter appeared in several films, including Bebe's Kids (1992) and The Grass Harp (1995). Additional health problems cropped up during these years, and in 1992, Carter underwent two surgeries for brain aneurysms. After the cancellation of Gimme A Break!, Carter starred in two more series, including the popular Hangin' With Mr. Cooper, and she made several memorable guest appearances on other shows, such as Touched By an Angel and Ally McBeal. Her continued success in the acting arena was countered by a plague of financial difficulties and continued health problems. In 1995, Carter filed for bankruptcy. She continued to win small roles in feature films in the late 1990s and in 1997 starred in a Broadway revival of the musical Annie. Health problems plagued her during the run of the show, and one night she collapsed on stage from an insufficient insulin shot. Always an outspoken person, Carter leveled public charges of racism against the producers when they released promotional materials for the show that pictured a white actress in Carter's role as Miss Hannigan.
In 2002, Carter again filed for bankruptcy, with a debt that exceeded $2 million. About that same time, she began rehearsals for a revival of Raisin, a musical version of Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin In the Sun. On January 23, 2003, a few days before the musical was to open, Carter was found dead at the age of 54 in her Beverly Hills home by her son Joshua. An autopsy found the cause of death to be a heart attack. At some point during the mid-1990s, Carter had begun a relationship with a woman named Ann Kaser, but this was not known to the public until after her death. Kaser was named as the heir to Carter's property and guardian of Carter's children. Nell Carter was interred in Hillside Memorial Park in Culver City, California.