Black, Jewish, lesbian, Republican Bush supporter...Gimme a Break! star Nell Carter fit a lot into her 4'11" frame. Her NYT obit quotes her wanting to be ''Judy Garland without the tragedy.'' She must have meant on stage, where she exuded a sunny, sassy, saucy persona in musicals like Ain't Misbehavin, for which she won a Tony and later an Emmy. Cast as Effie in the original production of Dreamgirls, she quit in preproduction to take a role on the soap opera Ryan's Hope, leaving all the accolades for Jennifer Holliday. Two months before that musical opened, Gimme a Break! debuted and lasted six seasons of Carter playing housekeeper and de facto mother to the white family of a widower police chief. Stephen Holden wrote it "revived the archetype of the mammy," and Carter had a fractious relationship with the show's producers who were eventually replaced. In the final season, the cast included a young Rosie O'Donnell, who was still closeted, and apparently things were quite frosty on set between the two lesbian comediennes. In the 1990s Carter was cast as Miss Hannigan in the revival of Annie and publicly suggested it was racism that caused the producers to use a television commercial featuring a white actress in her role.
In her private life, her struggles were vast. At sixteen she was raped and became pregnant, giving birth to her daughter Tracy. Later when she wanted to conceive, she had three miscarriages. Trying to adopt, she was twice thwarted at the very end of the process, once by a young woman who changed her mind and wanted to keep the baby, once by amateur extortionists. Finally, she succeeded in adopting two boys. She battled a cocaine addiction. In the early 80s, she attempted suicide. In the late 80s, her brother died of aids. All in 1992, she divorced her husband, had two aneurysms, and married her second husband, whom she divorced in 1993. In 1995 and again in 2002 she declared bankruptcy. She died of heart disease, complicated by diabetes, in 2003, at 54. She is survived by her partner Ann Kaser, who became guardian to Carter's children.