Nell Ruth Carter (September 13, 1948 – January 23, 2003) was an American singer and 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.
From 1981 to 1987, Carter starred in the NBC sitcom Gimme a Break!. She received two Emmy and two Golden Globe nominations for her work on the series.
Born Nell Ruth Hardy in Birmingham, Alabama, she was one of nine children born to Horace and Edna Mae Hardy. When she was two years old, her father was electrocuted after he stepped on a live power line.
As a child, she began singing on a local gospel radio show and was also a member of the church choir. At the age of 15, she began performing with the Renaissance Ensemble that played at area coffee houses and gay bars. On July 5, 1965, Carter, then 16 years old, was raped at gunpoint by a man she knew who gave her ride home from a performance with the Renaissance Ensemble. Carter became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, Tracey, the following year. Carter attempted to raise Tracey alone, but found it too difficult. She sent Tracey to live with her elder sister Willie (Carter would later say Tracey was the product of a short lived marriage, but revealed the truth in an interview in 1994). At the age of 19, Carter left Birmingham and moved to New York City with The Renaissance Ensemble, changing her surname to ‘”Carter”. While living in New York City, Carter sang in coffee shops before landing her first role on Broadway in 1971.
Carter 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”. 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 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.
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 soap opera, Ryan’s Hope in New York. When Dreamgirls premiered in late 1981, Jennifer Holliday had taken over the lead. In 1981, Carter also took a role on television’s The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo, before landing the lead role of Nell Harper on the sitcom Gimme a Break!. The series was a ratings hit for the then-fledgling NBC and earned Carter a Golden Globe and Emmy Award nominations. Gimme a Break! aired from 1981 to 1987.