How Did ‘Gimme a Break!’ Star Nell Carter Die?

Nostalgia for movies and TV shows from the 1980s is still going strong, with studios and networks rebooting or reviving hits from that decade. But one ’80s series that’s largely forgotten despite a successful six-season run is Gimme a Break! The sitcom starred the multitalented actor and singer Nell Carter, and it remained her best-known role nearly 35 years after the show ended.

However, if Gimme a Break! ever saw a return, Carter would be conspicuously absent. That’s because the star met an untimely death in 2003.

‘Gimme a Break!’ was Nell Carter’s breakout role

Actors Telma Hopkins, Matthew Lawrence, and Nell Carter on the TV show 'Gimme a Break' in January 1987
Telma Hopkins (left), Matthew Lawrence, and Nell Carter on ‘Gimme a Break’ in 1987 | NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

Gimme a Break! premiered on NBC on October 29, 1981, IMDb reports. Carter starred as Nell Harper, who took a job as a housekeeper and caretaker of her widowed friend’s three kids. Harper became a mother figure to the children and eventually took in a foster child, Joey, played by ’90s teen idol Joey Lawrence in one of his first major acting roles. 

Gimme a Break! aired 137 episodes over six seasons, with its finale airing on May 12, 1987. Carter performed the show’s catchy theme song, and her performance in the series earned her two Emmy nominations and two Golden Globe nominations.

Nell Carter’s career outside of ‘Gimme a Break’

Carter was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 13, 1948, and garnered an appreciation for music at an early age, Billboard reported. She listened to her mother’s recordings of artists like B.B. King and Dinah Washington, as well as Elvis Presley records from her brother’s collection. Some of Carter’s favorite performers included Doris Day and Johnny Mathis.

In 1988, she recalled that she “was a weirdo to want to be in show business. Most kids wanted to be teachers or nurses.” But her showbiz aspirations came true, and she became a well-known figure on stage, TV, and the big screen.

Gimme a Break! wasn’t Carter’s first gig in the entertainment industry. Before that, she had starred in the musical Ain’t Misbehavin’ on Broadway, which earned her a Tony Award in 1978. Five years later, in 1982, she won an Emmy for a TV broadcast of the musical.

A decade later, she faced a health scare. Carter underwent brain surgery in 1992 to remove an aneurysm. After recovering, she returned to the industry and continued to perform, mainly in plays and musicals.

Her untimely death

Carter’s spokesperson confirmed to Billboard that she died on January 23, 2003. The performer, who had battled diabetes for years, collapsed in her Beverly Hills home and was found by her 13-year-old son that night.

The Los Angeles Times reported that no autopsy was performed, as requested by a provision in Carter’s will, but the LA County coroner surmised a probable cause of death. Judging by “x-rays, blood tests, medical history, and observation of her body in a postmortem examination the day after her death,” the coroner ruled she probably died of heart disease, with diabetes as a contributing factor.

No foul play was suspected, and tests showed no illegal drugs in her system. That is notable because Carter had also battled drug addiction in the ’80s. At the time of her death, she was in rehearsals for a leading role in a musical production of Raisin, based on the iconic novel A Raisin in the Sun. Carter died at the age of 54.

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