Broadway, TV star Nell Carter dead at 54

Actress won awards for `Misbehavin' '

Appreciation

January 24, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

To many, Nell Carter will be remembered as the outspoken and controversial housekeeper in the long-running TV sitcom, Gimme a Break! But she was also an acclaimed stage actress who got her Tony Award-winning big break in the Broadway musical, Ain't Misbehavin'.

Carter collapsed and died at her Beverly Hills home yesterday. She was 54.

"To me, what is most important about Nell Carter is what the general public knows least about her, which is that she was one of the great singers of her generation," said Murray Horwitz, the originator and co-author of Ain't Misbehavin', for which Carter received a Tony in 1978.

Reached in his car on the way to Center Stage's 25th anniversary production of that Fats Waller musical, Horwitz recalled that exactly a quarter century ago he and Carter were in a New York rehearsal room working on the original production. In many ways, he said, she embodied Waller's spirit. "She had this combination of warmth and naughtiness and in-your-face daring that Fats had."

Besides winning a Tony for the musical, Carter received an Emmy for a 1982 NBC telecast of the show. She was reunited with the original cast again in 1988 for an anniversary revival that played a pre-Broadway run at the Mechanic Theatre.

The revival came a year after Gimme a Break! ended its six-year run, and Carter still bristled at criticism she had received for playing the stereotypical role of a maid. "I think that anyone who denies their heritage doesn't deserve their destiny. My grandmother was a maid," she said in an interview with The Sun. "I really refuse to be ashamed of where I came from. I refuse."

Carter had also appeared in Baltimore at the start of her career, co-starring opposite Robert Guillaume in a musical called Fire in the Mindhouse at Center Stage in 1971. She made her most recent appearance here in 1997 playing Miss Hannigan in a revival of Annie at the Mechanic.

Carter grew up in Birmingham, Ala., singing in her church choir. She sang on the gospel circuit before moving on to coffeehouses and nightclubs. She longed to sing opera, then aspired to be a belter.

Her reputation for being difficult was overstated, according to Horwitz. Baltimore-born actor Andre De Shields, who co-starred with her in Ain't Misbehavin', told The Sun in 1988, "You cannot allow yourself to be intimidated by truly larger-than-life talent and that's what Nell Carter is."

The hefty 4-foot-11 actress - whose weight fluctuated from 129 pounds during the days of Ain't Misbehavin' to 185 during Gimme a Break! - suffered from diabetes for years, said spokesman Roger Lane. From early in her career until the mid-1980s, Carter struggled with alcohol and drugs, eventually shaking her addictions through a 12-step program.

She was found unconscious yesterday by one of her 13-year-old sons. The cause of death was not known.

Although Carter underwent two brain operations in 1992 for aneurysms, she continued to perform on stage. At the time of her death, she was rehearsing to play the role of another domestic worker, the mother, in a California production of Raisin, the musical version of A Raisin in the Sun.

Carter was married and divorced twice. She is survived by her two sons and a daughter.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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