Nell Carter, 1948-2003

By Nicholas Fonseca
Updated February 07, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

Blessed with a sharp, powerful voice custom-made for belting, singer-actress Nell Carter, 54, who died on Jan. 23 in her Beverly Hills home after a long struggle with diabetes, was the unruliest of showbiz creatures: an all-around entertainer who never apologized for living large.

Her full figure recalled Mae West and Bessie Smith, but the 4’11” star had other influences, saying she aimed to be ”Judy Garland without the tragedy.” Unfortunately, she faced similarly daunting obstacles. Growing up in racially torn Alabama, she witnessed her father’s death when he stepped on a power line; she was raped at 16. In her 30s, she battled cocaine addiction. (Ironically, Garland’s daughter Liza Minnelli sent her to rehab.) She lost a brother to AIDS in 1989, and suffered a brain aneurysm three years later.

Luckily, Carter’s vivaciousness propelled her through myriad setbacks — and onto Broadway. After moving to New York City at 19, she warbled through a smoky circuit of clubs before making her stage debut with Richard Gere in the 1970 musical Soon. She followed with roles in Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair, and the Fats Waller musical revue Ain’t Misbehavin’, which earned her a Tony in 1978. In 1983, Carter and costar Andre De Shields won Emmys for the show’s TV version.

Carter finally became a household name — and earned two Emmy nods — playing saucy housekeeper-cum-surrogate mom Nellie Harper on the ’80s NBC comedy Gimme a Break! True to her fiercely outspoken nature, Carter lashed out at critics who complained that her character reinforced outdated ”Mammy” stereotypes. ”She was a force to be reckoned with,” recalls costar Telma Hopkins, ”a person with the kind of energy that helped her overcome any limitations.”

And a person with an incredible voice. Says De Shields, ”I’m going to miss that brass band that lived in her throat.”