Today in Black Jewish History Month, Nell Carter.
Nell Carter was an American singer, and film, stage, and television actress. She won a Tony Award for her performance in the Broadway musical Ain’t Misbehavin’, as well as an Emmy Award for her reprisal of the role on television. She also received Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for her starring role in the long-running 1980s sitcom Gimme a Break!.
Born Nell Ruth Hardy to Horace and Edna Mae Hardy in Birmingham, Alabama, Carter was one of nine children. She overcame adversity and personal hardships before finding success as an actress.
Carter appeared alongside Bette Davis in the 1974 stage musical Miss Moffat, based on Davis’ earlier film The Corn Is Green. The show closed before making it to Broadway. She broke into stardom in the musical Ain’t Misbehavin, for which she won a Tony Award in 1978. She also won an Emmy for the same role in a televised performance in 1982. Additional Broadway credits included Dude and Annie.
In 1979, she had a part in the Miloš Forman-directed musical film adaptation of Hair. Her vocal talents are showcased throughout the motion picture soundtrack. One of the more memorable moments in the film involves her rendition of the song “White Boys” where she can be seen dancing playfully as she performs the song (alongside Ain’t Misbehavin co-star, Charlayne Woodard).
In 1978, Carter was cast as Effie White in the Broadway musical Dreamgirls, but departed the production during development to take a television role on the ABC-TV soap opera, Ryan’s Hope in New York. When Dreamgirls premiered in late 1981, Jennifer Holliday had taken over the lead. Carter also took a role on television’s The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo, before landing a steady role as housekeeper Nell Harper on the sitcom Gimme a Break!, for which she earned Golden Globe and Emmy Award nominations. The popular show lasted from 1981 to 1987.
During the early 1990s, Carter appeared in low-budget films, TV specials, and on game shows such as Match Game ’90 and To Tell the Truth. She also co-starred in Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper. She appeared as a special guest star on the pilot episode of the new WB show Reba and continued with the show, making a total of three appearances in season one.
In the mid-1990s, Carter appeared on Broadway in a revival of Annie as Miss Hannigan. She was very upset when commercials promoting the show used a different actress, Marcia Lewis, a white actress, as Miss Hannigan. The producers claimed that the commercials, which were made during an earlier production, were too costly to reshoot. Carter felt that racism played a part in the decision. “Maybe they don’t want audiences to know Nell Carter is black”, she told the New York Post. However, the ads did mention that Carter was in the show. “It hurts a lot”, Carter told the Post, “I’ve asked them nicely to stop it — it’s insulting to me as a black woman.” Carter was later replaced by another white actress, Sally Struthers.
In 2002, Carter made two appearances on the show Ally McBeal. The following year had her rehearsing for a production of Raisin, a stage musical of A Raisin in the Sun in Long Beach, California, and filming a movie, Swing.
After Gimme a Break! began, Carter’s life took a turbulent turn. She married mathematician and lumber executive George Krynicki, and converted to Judaism in 1982 (she had been born Catholic and raised Presbyterian).She attempted suicide in the early 1980s, and entered a drug detoxification facility around 1985.
Carter had three children: a daughter Tracy and two sons Daniel and Joshua. She adopted both her sons as newborns over a four month period. She attempted to adopt twice more but both adoptions fell through. In one case she brought home a child, Mary, but the birth parents demanded money before they would sign the adoption papers. In her final attempt, she allowed a young pregnant woman to move into her house with the plan to adopt the child but the mother decided to parent her child.
In 1992, she had surgery to repair two aneurysms. She divorced Krynicki and married Roger Larocque that same year. In 1993 she divorced Larocque. Carter declared bankruptcy in 1995 (and again in 2002). She also endured three miscarriages.
Appearing emotional and tearful on an episode of the Sally Jessy Raphael Show, Carter explained how she went to a Liza Minnelli concert during a turbulent time of her life. Carter told Raphael how Minnelli, seeing Carter in an agonized state, ran offstage to tell her sister, Lorna Luft, to go out and take Carter backstage so that she could get some help. Minnelli and Luft helped get Carter into rehab for her cocaine problems which she conquered.
Having previously survived two brain aneurysms, Carter died at the age of 54 on January 23, 2003, from heart disease complicated by diabetes in her Beverly Hills home that she shared with her partner Ann Kaser, and her two 13-year-old boys, Joshua and Daniel. Her daughter Tracy Ruth lived away from their California home. She is interred in the Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, California.
This is Black Jewish History Month at MaNishtana’s Musings.