Nell Carter is, by her own admission, “that, rare mix—a short, fat, Jewish black woman.” She is also that showbiz rarity: a musical-comedy star as much at home on the TV screen as she is on the stage. Winner of a Tony and an. Emmy (for the 1978 Broadway-hit Ain’t Misbehavin’ and NBC’s 1982 version), Carter electrified theater audiences with her razzle-dazzle singing. But she also charmed TV viewers with her sassy humor and earthy wisdom as housekeeper Nellie Harper in the popular ’80s sitcom Gimme a Break.
That title might also seem appropriate to Carter’s tragic personal life. When she was only 2—growing up in Birmingham, Ala., the fifth of nine children of Edna Mae Humphrey a homemaker, and her second husband, Horace Hardy, an Army sergeant—Nell witnessed her father’s death when he accidentally stepped on a live power line in a field next to their home. When she was 16, she was raped at gunpoint. Here, for the first time, Carter discusses that trauma and reveals that her daughter Tracey, now 27 and a Centers for Disease Control counselor in Miami, was not the offspring of an early marriage (as Carter had long maintained) but the child of that rape.
Even as Carter began building a successful career—first as a cabaret singer and stage actress in New York City, then as a TV star in Hollywood—she grappled with obesity, alcoholism and cocaine addiction. Most harrowing of all was a double aneurysm in her brain, diagnosed in 1992, which nearly took her life. Now, a year and a half after her surgery. Carter, 45, is fully recovered, healthier and more tranquil than she has been in years. As she told deputy L.A. bureau chief Todd Gold, “Honey, I know God has always loved me. The difference since the aneurysms is that now I love myself too.”
AT 15, IN MY JUNIOR YEAR OF HIGH school, I began singing with a little group, the Renaissance Ensemble. We played coffee houses and gay bars. I used to tell my mom that was going somewhere, like a movie. She never knew.
A year later, on the night of July 4, 1965, I went with a group to one of the clubs where I sang, way out in the woods. Afterward I got a ride back with this guy I knew, and on the way he stopped the car and told me to get out. He pointed a shotgun at me. Then he look me to the trees and raped me.
When I sot home, I was numb. I told my sister Willie. She tried to console me, told me that we’d get through it. My brother Bernard, who was always so wise, told me what had happened was terrible but that not all people acted like that and I couldn’t lose hope. But my mother didn’t give me much reason to hope. When I told her I’d been raped, she called me a hurtful name. I remember thinking, “What did I do? Am I a slut?”
We never called the police. Rape wasn’t something you talked about then outside the family. When I missed my monthly, I was in shock. I hadn’t even been told the facts of life. I went to my mother, which was a mistake. There was no understanding there. I could have had an abortion—they were around. But I had my baby, my daughter Tracey. I’ve always told people that she was the product of an early marriage, but that was a lie my brother helped me concoct as protection from even more pain. I tried raising Tracey by myself, but it was too hard for me. My sister Willie brought her up. She was 12 years older than me, married, had children and a real home. Tracey came in as the baby of the family.
At 19, Carter went to New York City, where she sang at supper clubs, and three years later made her stage debut in Soon, a 1970 musical comedy co-starring Richard Gere, Peter Allen and Barry Bostiwick. Bigger and better shows followed, including Jesus Christ Superstar and Ain’t Misbehavin’. In the late ’70s, Carter leaped to TV with costarring roles on Ryan’s Hope and Lobo. Then in 1981 came her sitcom breakthrough on NBC.
Gimme a Break ran for six years and gave me the kind of money and freedom that I’d dreamed would make me happy. It didn’t. Nor had winning the Tony for Ain’t Misbehavin’ in 1978. The problem was my personal life. In 1979, I’d met Ceorg Krynicki. He was a rich businessman from Austria and probably the most gorgeous man I’d ever seen. I’d spotted him while I was doing a show in San Francisco and I thought I’d die.
We married in 1982. I got drunk on our wedding night, just smashed. I wasn’t celebrating as much as I was frightened about what I’d done. The thought of making a commitment made me sick to my stomach. I shouldn’t ever be married. I’m al my best when there’s distance between me and a man. I don’t like compromising. If I’m with someone for too long, I begin feeling trapped.
Georg left me after just 18 months because of what I was doing with drugs. At the Tony Awards show party in 1978, a famous person whose name I won’t mention gave me cocaine, and it was the most amazing thing in the world. Before then, I had used food and booze to escape. But I didn’t ever feel as if I was out of control. As soon as I did cocaine, though, I was hooked. I started gelling fatter and fatter and crazier and crazier. I would eat, do the show, go home, lock myself away in my room and snort cocaine.
How much was I doing? Sometimes I needed about $2,200 a day. Sometimes it was just $1,000. (I was making about $50,000 a week.) I did coke all night, then drank at about 3 in the morning to get to sleep so I could get up for a 6 o’clock call al the studio. But around 5:30, you realize that you smell like booze, so you do coke to wake up.
Once, Joel Thurm, an NBC casting executive, and Dr. Larry Siegler, a friend of mine, broke into my house in Beverly Hills after not hearing from me for several days and found me lying on the floor, unconscious and wrapped only in my mink. They got me right into Century City Hospital.
That was the first of several rehab stays. I hated being there. I just wanted to get the hell out so I could get a hit of coke. After a few weeks, though, I accepted that I was an addict and managed to stay clean for a while after leaving there.
I searched for answers to life’s meaning and, though I was raised a Presbyterian, I converted to Judaism around 1983. But my drug problems persisted. All through the mid-1980s, while I was doing Gimme a Break, I went in and out of treatment hospitals. It wasn’t my choice. My husband and friends saw to it. Around 1985 or ’86, I saw Liza Minnelli perform in London. Right after, she and Astrid Lundstrom [Rolling Stone bassist Bill Wyman’s ex-girlfriend] put me on a plane to Minnesota and got me into Hazelden. Considering the state I was in, I’m convinced I would have been dead if they hadn’t done that. At Hazelden, they had me in major therapy, writing essays, talking to counselors, even cleaning toilets. I spent more than a month there. I haven’t done cocaine since.
In 1987, Gimme a Break went off the air. Carter sold her house in Beverly Hills and moved to Manhattan, where she resumed her nightclub act. Two years later her brother and closest confidant, Bernard, then 44 and a college professor in Chicago, died of AIDS. “Without him, I didn’t know where to turn,” she says. Moving back to L.A. and reconciling with Krynicki, she determined to have a child with him. But she suffered three miscarriages and in frustration blamed her husband, “even though I knew it wasn’t his fault,” she says. “Eventually it led us to finalize our divorce [in 1992].” Happily, Carter wound up adopting two baby boys: Joshua Bernard, born in December 1989, and Daniel, born two months later. In May 1992 she wed Canadian record producer Roger Larocque. But her elation was short-lived. That same month, Carter’s grandmother Edna Lee, whom she adored, died of Alzheimer’s disease, and shortly afterward Larocque left her. He later filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences. During this period, an even more shattering crisis was beginning to unfold.
I thought the headaches I’d been having for a few months were the result of stress piling up, but one weekend in July, I flew out to Atlanta to do an AIDS benefit. On the plane I asked my manager if he smelled something funny. He didn’t. I drank a glass of water, and something seemed wrong with it. At the time, I had no idea this behavior was caused by two aneurysms pressing on my brain. Back home the next weekend, I couldn’t get out of bed. My headaches were unrelenting. On Monday my housekeeper took me to the doctor. Everything was painful. I screamed just from the feel of the tears running down my face. The next thing I knew I was in the ICU at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Both aneurysms had burst, and within 12 hours of arriving at the hospital, I had surgery. I’m sure I would have died without it. But the doctors removed only one of the aneurysms. They wanted to wait before operating on the second because of my weight and because I’d lost too much blood.
When I got out of surgery, I immediately asked for my boys. I wanted to hug them. I went home for a while, but wailing a month for the second operation nearly killed me. I was scared that I’d hemorrhage. But before I reentered Cedars-Sinai in August 1992, my daughter Tracey and friends like Angie Dickinson and my agent, John Kimble, had made me feel that God was with me. I worried more for my children. Danny was so scared, and Josh just laid down and said, “Mommy hurt.” It made me want to get it over with.
I left the hospital on Sept. 13, 1992, my 44th birthday. As I entered our house, I heard “Surprise!” Friends had organized a party. My little boys had on their fancy Brooks Brothers outfits, and their smiles were the best medicine I could have possibly wished for.
That’s when I began to learn what was important in life. I spent months in every kind of therapy, physical and mental. (But not sexual. I’m Fin fine there.) I knew I was getting better, finally, when a doctor stuck a pin in me and asked if I felt it. “Hell, yes!” I answered. “You stuck it in me.”
In early 1993 I dared to get back onstage, singing at an AIDS benefit at Talou in Beverly Hills. But the big lest came in March when [choreographer] Debbie Allen asked me to sing Aladdin’s “A Friend Like Me” on the Academy Awards. Although nervous, I figured if Debbie thought I could do it, then I would. It went great. I remembered the words and I didn’t fall. Afterward, I felt as beautiful as Michelle Pfeiffer. A few months later, I auditioned for the ABC sitcom Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper. They were looking [to fill the role of the high] school principal. I got cast exactly a year from the day of my first operation.
Since then, I’ve felt reborn. I haven’ I had a drink for almost two years. No drugs either. For my last birthday I got myself a trainer, someone who looks good and can make me think obscene thoughts while I exercise, which includes aerobics like walking and chasing the kids. I’m trying to lose weight by working with a nutritionist and avoiding fattening foods. My weight at its peak was close to 300 pounds. Now I’m under 250.
The aneurysms were the best thing that happened to me. They knocked me down and made me slop. Now I talk to God every morning. I appreciate life. I don’t blame anyone, including my mother, for anything that happened in the past. I speak to her, but we’re still having our problems. That’s just the way it is. I no longer think of myself as a victim. The first thing I said to myself on recovering was, “Pray for yourself. The rest will take care of itself.” And it has.