Nell Carter (born Nell Ruth Hardy, September 13, 1948-January 20, 2003) was an African-American Actress and Singer. She was best known to TV audiences as housekeeper Nell Harper on the NBC sitcom Gimme a Break from 1981 to 1987. She was one of three regular panelists on the late 1990s revival on the classic game show Match Game (1998-1999).
Born Nell Ruth Hardy in Birmingham, Alabama, one of nine children born to Horace and Edna Mae Hardy. When she was just two years old, her father was electrocuted after stepping on a live power line.
As a child, she began singing on a local gospel radio show and was also a member of her church choir. At the young age of 16, Nell feared for her life as she was raped at gunpoint and became pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter, Tracey, who was raised by her aunt. When she was 19 years of age, Nell packed her bags leaving Birmingham behind and moving to New York City, changing her surname to Carter and for a better life. While living in New York City, Carter sang regularly in coffee shops before landing her first role on Broadway in 1971.
She made her Broadway debut in the 1971 rock opera Soon, which closed after three performances. She was the Music Director for the 1974 Westbeth Playwrights Feminist Collective's production of What Time of Night It Is. She also 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 in 1978 she won a Tony Award. Nell also won an Emmy for the same role in a televised performance in 1982. Additional Broadway credits included a role in Dude and Annie.
In 1978, Nell was cast as Effie White in the Broadway musical Dreamgirls but departed the production during development to take a television role on the ABC soap opera, Ryan's Hope in New York, leading the project to be shelved. When Dreamgirls premiered in late 1981 with Jennifer Holliday taking over the lead role (the stage play was later developed into a feature film in December 2006 with American Idol alum Jennifer Hudson in the role of Effie).
In October 1981, Carter made the move to Primetime TV where she starred on a new NBC sitcom titled Gimme a Break, debuting on October 29. She played the starring role of Nellie Ruth "Nell" Harper, a housekeeper for widowed Police Chief Carl "Chief" Kanisky, played by late actor Dolph Sweet (who passed away after the show's fourth season on May 8, 1985).
Playing the role of Nell Harper has earned Carter both Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. She also sung the show's theme song. The show ran on NBC from October 29, 1981 to May 12, 1987.
After Gimme a Break ended, Nell went on to land guest starring roles on various TV shows including a memorable appearance on the Season five premiere episode of 227 titled "Take My Diva...Please!" where she played Opera Diva Beverly Morris. In 1989, she shot a pilot for NBC entitled Morton's By the Bay, which aired as a one-time special in May of that year. In this, Carter played the assistant to the owner of a banquet hall but unfortunately NBC passed on the series development. In October of that year, she performed The Star-Spangled Banner prior to Game 4 of the 1989 World Series, played at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California.
From 1993-1995, she had a supporting character role on the ABC sitcom Hangin' With Mr. Cooper as Principal Pamela "Jane" Moore for two seasons.
From 1998-1999, Nell appeared as a panelist on a short-lived revival on the classic game show Match Game. She was one of three regulars on the five-star panel (the other two regulars were Vicki Lawrence and Judy Tenuta) and the series was hosted by Michael Burger.
After Gimme a Break! began, Carter's life took a turbulent turn for the worse. She attempted suicide in the early 1980s, and entered a drug detoxification facility around 1985. Her brother, Bernard, died of complications due to AIDS in 1989.
She married mathematician and lumber executive George Krynicki, and converted to Judaism in 1982 (she had been born into a Roman Catholic family and raised Presbyterian).
Nell had three children: daughter Tracy, and two sons, Daniel and Joshua. She adopted both her sons as newborns over a four-month period. She attempted to adopt two more times but both adoptions fell through. In her final attempt, she took in a young pregnant woman, who originally agreed to let Nell raise her child after giving birth but the mother decided to keep her baby. In 1992, Carter had surgery to repair two aneurysms. She later divorced Krynicki and married Roger Larocque the same year only to divorce him a year later. She has also declared bankruptcy in 1995 and again in 2002 and endured three miscarriages.
She was also diagnosed with diabetes and appeared in commercial ads for Liberty Medical in the early 2000s. On January 23, 2003, at the age of 54 and having previously survived two brain aneurysms, Nell passed away from heart disease complicated by diabetes in her Beverly Hills home. She is survived by her domestic partner, Ann Kaser, her two sons, Joshua and Daniel, and daughter Tracy Ruth.
Her final onscreen appearance was in the comedy film Back by Midnight. It was released in 2005, two years after her death.