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- June 21, 1982
- Vol. 17
- No. 24
Feasting on Tv Stardom and a New Marriage, Nell Carter Celebrates Life In, Well, Fat City
They met three years ago at a Jewish deli in San Francisco, across the street from the Geary Theater where Nell was performing in Ain't Misbehavin', the Fats Waller musical that won her a 1978 Tony as Broadway's Best Featured Actress in a Musical. Right away, Nell recalls, "There was something electrifying between us." Returning home from their first date the following night, she says, "He and I sat in front of the house from midnight till 6 a.m. just talking and kissing. It was such an unbelievably sweet experience. It was the first time that I, a grown woman, was in no hurry to go to bed. My primary thought was, 'I want to get to know him better.' "
The unlikely three-year romance culminated last month when Georg and Nell tied the knot in a nondenominational hilltop Hollywood ceremony attended by 200 guests. But the newly-wed couple still ain't misbehavin'. Nell says that she and Georg never got the chance to "consummate" their marriage because she was stricken simultaneously by bronchitis and a bad case of indigestion from gorging on caviar and champagne after the wedding feast. "We spent our wedding night with Georg holding my head over the sink," recalls Nell. Georg promptly flew to New York to begin studying finance at Columbia University, leaving Carter to struggle queasily through the taping of Ain't Misbehavin', with the rest of the original Broadway cast, which NBC will air this week. Carter claims she deserves a "medal from the humane society" for her performance, particularly for her showstopper, Cash for My Trash. "That was my heart attack number," she says with a belly laugh. "That was a lot of weight to be taking across that stage."
Nell, however, refuses to admit just how much weight she does carry around. "I'm not 200 pounds," she says. "But sometimes I look over my shoulder and I see that 200 coming around the bend." She adds defensively that "my weight doesn't keep me from anything. I'm very agile. I have a nice body and I'm proud of it. My husband likes it too." What has weighed her down, she maintains, is being black in Hollywood. "I have pride, and many a night I've bitched and broken things about how I've been treated," she says. "But I realize that I'm a black woman out here, and if I can't curse you out, I'm not going to say anything. I'm not going to kiss ass and I'm not going to create unnecessary scenes."
She blames the discontent of black actors less on the industry than on the public. "The public knows what it wants," she says. "Anytime there's been a black show, there's been a black complaining about how the show doesn't represent blacks, or you have a white complaining about how the niggers are getting out of hand." Carter has no reservations about playing a maid in a white household on Gimme a Break, though her talents often seem wasted in the ham-handed sitcom. "So blacks don't want to be represented as having menial jobs," she says. "I think anyone, black or white, who looks down on a person because she's a maid or a waitress is a real butt-face."
Nell was born and raised in Birmingham, Ala., the daughter of an Army sergeant who died in a freak accident when she was 2. ("He was just walking across a field, stepped on a live wire, and was electrocuted," she says. "It was no big dramatic thing. God said, 'Come,' and he died.") Carter was made brutally aware of racism early in her life. "Those girls who got killed in the 1963 Baptist Sunday school bombing were my classmates," she recalls. "I'd see my grandmother go to the store and be called 'girl' and be told to toe the line. People would drive down the street and yell 'nigger' at you out of their cars. I grew up with that stuff and I just wanted to get away."
Singing provided her escape route. Carter appeared on a weekly radio show in Birmingham with a singing group called the Y-Teens, took an acting course at Birmingham Southern University, and, at 19, left for New York City with $300. Several coffeehouse gigs led to an appearance on the Today show, where she attracted enough attention to earn steady bookings at Manhattan clubs. Her next stop was Broadway, with roles in the flop Dude, Jesus Christ Superstar and, finally, Ain't Misbehavin'—which won her several awards, an NBC contract and a ticket to Hollywood.
Carter now rents a three-bedroom house in Laurel Canyon, with sweeping views of downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood and "Catalina Island on a clear day." She loves cooking soul food—ribs are her specialty—and listening to blues great B.B. King. She drives a dark-blue 1980 BMW "paid for in cash" and proudly proclaims that she owes "on no notes" [i.e., has no debts]. Husband Georg will join her after his courses are finished late this summer, and in the meantime Nell is preparing for the visit of Tracey Jenniece, her 15-year-old daughter from a short-lived teenage marriage, who lives with Nell's sister in Birmingham. Although Carter's family "still wonders why I didn't go to school and become a teacher," Nell is satisfied with her chosen profession, although she acknowledges its demands. "If I had to do a nude scene and it was necessary for my career," threatens the roly-poly star, "yes—I'd do it."
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