Nell Carter, who played the sassy, matronly housekeeper on the 1980s sitcom Gimme a Break and received a Tony Award in 1978 for her performance in the Broadway musical Ain't Misbehavin', died Thursday, her publicist said. She was 54. The singer-actress collapsed in her Beverly Hills home and was discovered by one of her sons, spokesman Roger Lane said.
Carter had suffered from diabetes for years, Lane added, and underwent brain surgery in 1992 to remove an aneurysm. She recovered and continued to perform, mostly on stage. Carter was in rehearsals at a Long Beach theater for Raisin, the musical version of Raisin in the Sun. In addition to Carter's Tony win for Ain't Misbehavin', she won an Emmy in 1982 for a TV broadcast of the show. Her NBC comedy Gimme a Break ran from 1981 to 1987 and garnered her more Emmy nomination in 1982 and 1983. In 1985 an episode of the show was broadcast live--the first for a situation comedy in nearly 30 years. Carter and her costars performed flawlessly, and at the end she threw up her arms and yelled, "We did it!"
Growing up in Birmingham, Ala., Carter listened to her mother's recordings of Dinah Washington and B.B. King as well as her brother's Elvis Presley records. She liked Doris Day, the Andrews Sisters, Johnny Mathis, and admired the work of Cleo Laine and Barbra Streisand. Carter said she would have preferred to have been an opera singer. "When I was growing up, it was not something you aspired to," she said in 1988. "I was a weirdo to want to be in show business. Most kids wanted to be teachers or nurses."
Carter was well-known in the gay community for her tireless AIDS activism and support of such Los Angeles benefits as "The Battle for the Tiara" and "Divas Simply Singing."