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Nell Carter, 54; Tony-Winning Singer, Star of 'Gimme a Break'

January 24, 2003|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

Nell Carter, who became a Broadway star in 1978 with her sassy, Tony Award-winning turn in the Fats Waller musical revue "Ain't Misbehavin,' " then extended her fame during the 1980s playing Nell Harper, the black housekeeper who was a surrogate mom to a white police chief's brood on the NBC sitcom "Gimme a Break," has died. She was 54.

The singer-actress' 13-year-old son, Joshua, found her dead Thursday morning in their home in Beverly Hills, according to Carter's manager, Susan Joseph. The cause of death was uncertain.

Carter spent the last day of her life rehearsing to play Mama in a Long Beach revival of "Raisin," the 1973 musical adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 drama "A Raisin in the Sun."

Her character maintains her dignity, resilience and capacity for compassion in the face of hardship and disaster. Carter told a Times reporter who observed rehearsals on Wednesday that she was patterning her performance after the most important and beloved woman in her own life, Edna Lee, the maternal grandmother who raised her.

The actress had to call on reserves of resilience in her own battles with illness, drug addiction and the excess weight she carried on a 4-foot, 11-inch frame. She hoped the role of Mama would return her to Broadway and launch a new career phase as a dramatic leading actress.

Carter grew up in Birmingham, Ala., the fifth of nine children. As a young girl, she began performing in youth singing groups.

But her early years were also filled with trauma: the electrocution of her father, who accidentally stepped on a live power line in a field next to their home when she was a toddler; and her rape at gunpoint when she was 15.

When she was 19, she moved to New York City, singing in coffeehouses. She made her Broadway debut at 22 in "Soon," a flop that also featured then-unknowns Richard Gere and Peter Allen.

Other early credits included small parts in the stage musical "Jesus Christ Superstar" and the film version of "Hair." After training in London as a dramatic actress, Carter was cast in "Ain't Misbehavin,' " which ran on Broadway for nearly four years.

Reviewing the show in 1978, John S. Wilson of the New York Times hailed Carter's "strangely shrill, penetrating voice," saying it "squeezes out startling rhythmic phrases whether she is lounging ... or bumping and belting."

In 1988, when Carter and the four other original cast members, including Ken Page and Charlayne Woodard, revived "Ain't Misbehavin' " on Broadway, Frank Rich of the New York Times wrote that Carter's "voice is the unexpected instrument it always was, an alternately blaring and muted trumpet.... There is a blues lady smoldering beneath the jazz comedienne. Rather than warp the show with her star presence, Ms. Carter deepens it."

But the actress said the moment of her greatest stage triumph -- the night in 1978 when she won her Tony -- was also the night she first tried cocaine. Along with her television fame in the '80s, she recalled in a 1994 People magazine interview, came a drug addiction that was periodically interrupted by treatments instigated only when her friends intervened.

Her other troubles included two divorces, three miscarriages and her grandmother's long decline from Alzheimer's disease before dying in 1992. That same year, Carter suffered from a near-fatal brain aneurysm. She later learned she was diabetic, and once, when an insulin shot didn't kick in, she collapsed on stage while playing the villainous Miss Hannigan in a 1997 Broadway revival of "Annie."

Carter, always candid about her troubles, stayed busy in recent years with cabaret performances, occasional television guest spots and concerts in which her repertoire ranged from Waller, Gershwin and Duke Ellington to Bob Dylan and country songs.

In the 1990s, she returned to series television with the short-lived "You Take the Kids" and "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper."

Film parts included voicing a character in the animated feature "Bebe's Kids" (1992), and a part in "The Grass Harp" (1995). She took guest spots in "Ally McBeal" and "Reba."

She also was raising sons Joshua and Daniel, adopted as infants in 1989 and 1990.

"She wanted to show people her many sides, and show that her capability went far beyond being a comic," said Joseph, Carter's manager. "She had lost 170 pounds over the last year and was raring to go. This was the year we were going to show her in a different light."

When she arrived Wednesday at International City Theatre's Center Theater to rehearse "Raisin," Carter told co-directors Shashin Desai and caryn desai that she felt as if she were getting the flu. But never mind, Carter said -- she would be there for every rehearsal, every performance, no matter what.

After resting for a moment backstage, she sat down at a table on the stage for an interview in which she was by turns feisty, wry, pointedly critical of certain past shows and showbiz peers and deeply emotional.

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