No joke: Nell was special

January 31, 2003|By Phil Perrier

LOS ANGELES - One night around 1995, I did a stand-up show for a small but appreciative crowd at a Holiday Inn in Montgomery, Ala.

Any comic knows that one really good laugher can make a show like this, inspire other people around them to laugh, carry you through the rough spots. This was one of those nights.

Toward the back of the room, just beyond where I could see, there was a woman with a rich, booming laugh, one of those unrestrained "I don't give a darn" laughs. It was oddly familiar.

As the show progressed, so did her laughter. She never let me down. That big beautiful laugh waited for me after every punch line, like a warm embrace.

After the show, as I nursed a Coke at the bar, one of the men from the woman's table asked me to join them, said she wanted to meet me. She was wearing a sweat suit and a baseball cap. She hugged me, told me I was hilarious.

"Aren't you Nell Carter?" I said.

"Yeah," she said shyly.

She invited me to sit with her and spoke with me for more than an hour. Turns out she was staying at the Holiday Inn and shooting a movie nearby. A big Hollywood production.

The guys she was sitting with were the crew from the movie - cameramen, sound guys, carpenters. She and I drank Cokes. I told her I had to give up the booze; she said the same. She told me I had talent, said I should move to L.A., pursue the dream, said to give her a call when I got there.

All the time I kept making her laugh, I'm thinking, "I'm making Nell Carter laugh!" - the same Nell Carter who starred in the 1980s sitcom Gimme A Break! The same Nell Carter who died Jan. 23 at age 54.

When the check came, she grabbed it and paid for everybody. The guys tried to thank her. She changed the subject.

She signed a program for me: "Phil - you are sick and wonderful! X X - Nell Carter."

I hoped that someday she and I would wind up on the same talk show one night and I could tell the story - tell how much it meant to me, how much I appreciated her warmth, her encouragement, her laughter.

She hugged me good night and headed for her room. On the way out I asked one of the crew guys how many stars hang out with the crew.

"None," he replied. "But Nell is different. Nell is just Nell."

Phil Perrier is a stand-up comic and free-lance writer who lives in Los Angeles.

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