Nell Carter, Raped at 16, Had a Baby at 17, But Still Made History With “Gimme a Break" and “Mr. Cooper”

Nell Carter

The late Nell Carter, formerly known as Nell Ruth Hardy, was an African American actress and singer best known for her lead role in the TV sitcom Gimme a Break which aired on NBC from 1981 to 1987 with a total of 137 episodes. In the show, she portrayed the role of a housekeeper for a widowed police chief and his three daughters. She was also known for her role as PJ Moore, a high school principal, in Hangin with Mr. Cooper, another TV sitcom that aired on ABC from 1992 to 1997.

Carter began her career in 1970 singing in theaters. She also sang on a local gospel radio show in Birmingham, Alabama, and was a member of the church choir. At the age of 15, she began to perform at area coffee houses and later joined the Renaissance Ensemble which played at area coffee houses and gay bars.

She made her Broadway debut in the 1971 rock opera Soon and was also the music director for the Westbeth Playwrights Feminist Collective's production of What Time of Night It Is in 1974. Her big break finally came when starred in the musical Ain't Misbehavin, for which she won a Tony Award in 1978 and later won an Emmy for the same role in a television performance in 1982.

Her childhood, however, was not without trauma. In 1965, when she was just 16 years old, she was raped at a gunpoint by a man who gave her a ride home after one of her on-stage performances. Later, she became pregnant and gave birth to a healthy baby daughter that she named Tracy.

She later sent Tracy to live with her older sister Willie, and initially told the media that her daughter was the product of early marriage. However, she later spilled the truth in a tell-all interview in 1994.

Despite her setbacks in life, Carter went on to receive two Emmy and Golden Globe award nominations for her work on Gimme a Break and has been credited for paving the way for the progress of Black actresses in the television industry.

Sadly, she died of complications of both heart disease and diabetes on January 23, 2003. She was only 54 years old.