Nell Carter, Ain't Misbehavin' Star, Dead at 54

By Kenneth Jones
23 Jan 2003

Nell Carter in the Broadway revival of Ain't Misbehavin'.
Nell Carter in the Broadway revival of Ain't Misbehavin'.
Photo by Martha Swope

Nell Carter, the zaftig actress-singer who won a Tony Award for singing Fats Waller tunes in Ain't Misbehavin', died Jan. 23 at the age of 54.

She collapsed and died of natural causes in her Beverly Hills home, according to her publicist. Ms. Carter struggled with diabetes over the years and had a brain aneurysm in the 1990s, according to CNN.

Her most recent work on Broadway was playing the nasty Miss Hannigan in the 20th anniversary revival of Annie, in which she sang a new song. Her turn in the Tony Award-winning Ain't Misbehavin' in 1977-78 was so potent she landed a Hollywood job, starring as a sassy housekeeper in the popular NBC sitcom, "Gimme a Break!"

Ms. Carter, a Birminghamm, AL, native, was set to star in a 30th anniversary production of the musical, Raisin, inspired by the play A Raisin the Sun, for International City Theatre in Long Beach, CA. The run was slated for Feb. 7-March 9. She would have played the mother role.

Ms. Carter's other Broadway appearances included Dude, Soon, Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope and Jesus Christ Superstar. She appeared as a tribe member in the 1979 film, "Hair."



In 1978's Ain't Misbehavin', devised by Rcihard Maltby, Jr, using songs by (or made famous by) Thomas "Fats" Waller, Ms. Carter appeared as "Nell" (there were no character names) and brought the house down with her nasaly voice and strutting, bosomy presence. She sang "Cash for Your Trash," "I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling," and (with Ken Page) "Honeysuckle Rose," among other tunes. Her rendition of "Mean to Me" was singled out as heartbreaking and a highlight of the revue.

Her co-stars in 1978 were Andre de Shields, Armelia McQueen, Ken Page and Charlaine (now Charlayne) Woodard. The show was originally produced by Off-Broadway's Manhattan Theatre Club. The show took the Best Musical Tony Award that year. When the ensemble musical was revived on Broadway in 1988, Ms. Carter had risen above the title, as the show's star.

Ms. Carter began performing professionally when she was 11, on a weekly radio show in her hometown. She first came to New York as a nightclub singer and played such spots as Reno Sweeney's and The Village Gate.

Her 1988 Playbill bio for the Ain't Misbehavin' revival read: "This space is usually used to tell you what I've done. Instead, I will tell you what I'm going to do: the best that I possibly can. Enjoy. Love, Nell."

In 1997, Ms. Carter expressed her dismay that the producers of Annie used an old TV commercial featuring Marcia Lewis from the original run of the show to promote the revival.

"Maybe they don't want audiences to know Nell Carter is black," she told the New York Post at the time. The producers said it was too costly to shoot a new commercial, though the spot did mention that Carter was the new star. "It hurts a lot," Carter told the Post. "I've asked them nicely to stop it — it's insulting to me as a black woman."