Born September 13, 1948, in Birmingham, AL; daughter of Horace L. and Edna Hardy; married second husband, Georg Krynicki (a mathematician and lumber company executive), May, 1982 (divorced, 1989); children: (first marriage) Tracey Jenniece. Education: Studied acting at Birmingham Southern University; attended Bill Russells School of Drama, 1970-73. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Presbyterian. Addresses: Agent-- Triad Artists, Inc., 10100 Santa Monica Blvd., 16th Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90067.
In 1978 singer Nell Carter drew national attention for her role in Ain't Misbehavin', the Broadway show celebrating the 1930s black composer, musician, and comic entertainer Fats Waller, who was responsible for such classic songs as "Honeysuckle Rose," "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter," "Your Feet's Too Big," and "Black and Blue." A New York singer and stage actress for nearly a decade, Carter had always been cast as a belting soprano, but in Ain't Misbehavin' she found a vehicle for her substantial range and versatility, emerging as the star of the production. Her highly acclaimed performance earned her Tony, OBIE, and Drama Desk awards; a subsequent contract with NBC to star in the hit television comedy Gimme a Break further demonstrated her scope as an entertainer.
Profiling the Ain't Misbehavin' star in a 1978 article for the New York Times, John S. Wilson wrote that her "singing voice ... has the raw, penetrating quality of a steel-tipped drill," and noted that "Miss Carter adjusts her vocal style to bring out shades of wistfulness that other singers miss, wistfulness with an undercore of gutty determination." The writer further pointed out that when Carter "can cut loose ... or get into a raucous vaudeville exchange ... her voice cuts laser flashes through the auditorium." Deeming the actress "the Joshua of the ? Ain't Misbehavin' ? cast," a Time reviewer found that "her remarkable voice can be as powerful as a trumpet and as plaintive as a flute, and when she sings 'Mean to Me' and 'It's a Sin to Tell a Lie,' she is like a whole orchestra."
Born in Alabama on September 13, 1948, Carter grew up with racial bigotry and was determined to escape it as soon as she could. While her family encouraged her to become a teacher, she felt that show business was the way out; a local celebrity with the singing group Y-Teens, she left for New York City at age 19 with $300 in her pocket. At first finding work as a folk singer and guitarist at coffeehouses, Carter advanced to performing pop and blues in Manhattan nightclubs after a successful appearance on television's Today show. Stage roles soon came her way, including parts in Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Miss Moffat. While never unemployed, Carter admitted to Wilson that she "made a lot of wrong decisions" in her career, choosing lesser projects over such Broadway hits as Bubblin' Brown Sugar and The Wiz. Even Ain't Misbehavin' began in a little downstairs barroom at the Manhattan Theater Club; its enormous popularity eventually warranted a Broadway run.
Buoyed by her New York success, Carter headed for Hollywood, turning to television and motion pictures in the early 1980s. She became the star of the hit television series Gimme a Break in 1981, playing a feisty maid in a white middle-class household. While some critics felt that her considerable talents were wasted in the situation comedy, the performer countered that a black woman in Hollywood has few options: "The public knows what it wants," she informed Suzanne Adelson in People, blaming audiences more than the industry for black actors' limited roles.
The 1980s were also a time of major change in Carter's personal life. In 1983, she separated from her second husband, Georg Krynicki, whom she wed in May of 1982, and also began a strict diet in order to slim her rotund 4'11" frame. "I was very sick," she told Malcolm Boye in People. "I had diabetes, ulcers, an enlarged heart and an irregular heartbeat. Everything that could go wrong with me was wrong with me. And I was incredibly unhappy. Doctors told me I was obese, and I told them it was their imagination."
Tension was felt on the set of Gimme a Break when irritability and fatigue began affecting Carter's work. By November of 1983, though, after having dined mostly on roast chicken and pineapple since May, Carter had lost 81 pounds and noted to Boye, "I've managed to completely reeducate myself into making eating secondary. I used to eat all the time because the food was there. Now I feel like a kid in school who is gaining points for behaving. And I love myself for it."
Aside from her role on Gimme a Break, which ran until 1987, Carter has continued performing in musicals, starring in such stage productions as Blues Is a Woman; she also reprised her Ain't Misbehavin' role on television and in her concert tours. Favoring theater songs over standard nightclub fare, the vocalist has made just a handful of recordings, guest starring on Ben Bagley's revival albums, which feature the forgotten works of various Broadway composers. Describing the 1981 release Ben Bagley's Everyone Else Revisited in Stereo Review, Paul Kresh related that "the menu includes such mouth-watering desserts as Nell Carter's terrific treatment of 'Black Diamond' ... and the lovely lullaby 'Sleep, Baby, Don't Cry.'" "And when the material gets thin," continued the reviewer, "Carter ... keeps it going anyway."
In 1988, Carter made a concert appearance with an 11-piece band at New York City's Village Gate, winning praise from Stephen Holden in the New York Times, who labeled her "a solid, heartfelt southern soul singer." Continuing her work on television, she made a guest appearance on the show 227 in 1989 and went on to star in the 1990 CBS sitcom You Take the Kids and the 1992 television film Maid for Each Other. "I never say no to nothin'," the versatile Carter declared in Jet in 1989. "If you close the door on something, it'll only swing back and hit you later."
Carter died on January 23, 2003, at her home in Beverly Hills, California, of natural causes. She was 54.
by Nancy Pear
Nell Carter's Career
Singer and actress. Began performing on weekly radio show in Birmingham, AL, with singing group Y-Teens at age 11; folk singer and guitarist in coffeehouses in New York City; performed as a pop and blues singer in Manhattan nightclubs. Actress appearing in stage musicals, including Hair, Miss Moffat, Dude, Jesus Christ Superstar, Rhapsody in Gershwin, Black Broadway, and Ain't Misbehavin'; in television series, including Gimme a Break, 1981-87, 227, and You Take the Kids, 1990; in television specials, including Baryshnikov on Broadway, Christmas in Washington, and Nell Carter, Never Too Old to Dream; in television films, including Maid for Each Other, NBC, 1992; and in motion pictures, including Hair, 1979, Modern Problems, 1981, and Back Roads, 1981.
Nell Carter's Awards
OBIE Award, Drama Desk Award, Tony Award for best featured actress in a musical, and Soho News award, all 1978, all for Ain't Misbehavin'.
- Selective Works
- With others Ben Bagley's Everyone Else Revisited Painted Smiles, 1981.
- Kurt Weill Revisited Painted Smiles, 1982.
- Kurt Weill, Volume 2 Painted Smiles, 1982.
- Leonard Bernstein Revisited Painted Smiles, 1983.
- Ebony, September 1980.
- Jet, January 20, 1992.
- Newsweek, May 22, 1978.
- New York, January 13, 1992.
- New Yorker, September 5, 1988.
- New York Times, February 24, 1978; April 18, 1988.
- People, June 21, 1982; November 14, 1983; December 17, 1990; January 23, 1992.
- Stereo Review, May 1981.
- Time, June 5, 1978.
- Variety, December 24, 1990.