Nell Carter, Tony Winner for Ain't Misbehavin', Dies at 54
Nell Carter, who won a 1978 Tony Award as Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Ain't Misbehavin', was found dead today in her California home. It was reported that her body was discovered by her 13-year-old son, Joshua. At the time of her death, Carter was in rehearsals for a Long Beach production of the musical Raisin.
Born Nell Hardy in Birmingham, Alabama on September 13, 1948, the actress-singer made her Broadway debut in the short-lived 1971 musical Soon, in a cast that also included Peter Allen, Barry Bostwick, and Richard Gere. The following year, Carter appeared in Dude, a flop by the team that had created Hair.
The "Fats" Waller revue Ain't Misbehavin' was a big success for Carter; in addition to the Tony, she received Drama Desk and Theater World Awards, plus an Obie (since the show had premiered at the Manhattan Theater Club prior to its transfer to Broadway). She and co-star André DeShields also received Emmy Awards for their work in the 1982 NBC telecast of the musical. Carter gained nationwide recognition, as well as two Emmy nominations, for the sitcom Gimme a Break (1981-87). Among her other television work was a year (1978-79) on the soap opera Ryan's Hope, two seasons (1993-95) on the sitcom Hangin' with Mr. Cooper, and an appearance on the 1999 special My Favorite Broadway: The Leading Ladies.
Carter also worked in regional theater and nightclubs, and made recordings. Her films include Hair and The Grass Harp. She co-starred in the 1988 Broadway revival of Ain't Misbehavin'; her most recent Broadway appearance was as Miss Hannigan in the 1997 revival of Annie.
In 1998, I had the opportunity to interview Carter, who expressed her love of politics ("Lyndon Baines Johnson was really the one behind giving rights to people") and a disdain for critics "who rave over every Andrew Lloyd Webber show and anything from England." She was very fond of classical music: "I like Frederica von Stade and I could sit forever and listen to Itzhak Perlman." While growing up, she said, the performers she most admired included "Bette Davis, Angela Lansbury, Maureen O'Hara. I loved Audie Murphy and James Cagney. The old gangster movies had the best actors in the world. Musically speaking, my favorites were Dinah Washington and Marian Anderson."
Her most important role, said Carter, was that of mother; she had a 36-year-old daughter, Tracey, and two adopted sons, Joshua, 13, and Daniel, 12. Asked how she balanced a career with motherhood, Carter replied, "Ordinarily, my sons come with me when I work. If I'm doing a nightclub act, they're in the back -- watching TV or asleep. Then, it's straight home. I'm able to be a full-time mom. The only time I made a mistake was when I toured with Annie; we were on the road too long."
Carter was dismayed that she was not able to "pull off what I thought I could in Annie. I thought I was starting [color] blind casting in the show. I thought Annie would give a chance to black children, so they wouldn't have to just sit in the audience. Somewhere along the line, it didn't wash. I think there was one minority in the cast -- not black. It hurt me a lot; I felt let down."
A media uproar was caused during that production of Annie when 12-year-old Joanna Pacitti was replaced in the title role by 8-year-old Brittny Kissinger shortly before the show opened. "I had nothing to do with that little girl being fired," Carter said. "I was called into a room and told, and I did not have the power to stop it or do anything." Carter also denied rumors of friction during the show. "I read online that I was involved in knockdown, drag out fights," she noted. "There were never any. One time, the director [Martin Charnin] yelled at me and I told him not to. I said, 'I'm too old to be yelled at as a child.'"
Asked to recall some highlights of her career, Carter said, "One would have to be playing in Miss Moffat with Bette Davis." That 1974 musical version of The Corn Is Green closed during its tryout. It was directed by Joshua Logan, who, in his memoir, described Carter as "a brilliant actress and powerful singer." Carter also said she had fond memories of "working with Jeanne Moreau in the  Merchant-Ivory movie The Proprietor. What class! What a beautiful lady, and so sweet." Ironically, the date of Carter's death -- January 23, 2003 -- is Moreau's 75th birthday.
Asked if she thought that her sons would follow in her footsteps, Carter replied, "Well, both play piano and Josh takes tap. Josh is more into plays. He wants to see Ragtime again. Daniel can't stand plays. He saw Annie once ("Too many girls") and Cats ("Aw, they're not real"). Josh can follow me into the business -- after he becomes President of the United States. I want to be First Mother!"