Down 81 Pounds, Gimme a Break's Nell Carter Gives Thanks to Her Diet and the Good Lord

updated 11/14/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/14/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Nobody ever accused Nell Carter of doing anything halfway. The feisty 4'11" fireplug, who sasses Dolph Sweet on NBC's Gimme a Break, has always charged through life with unbridled enthusiasm and appetite. Sometimes too much appetite: All those steaks smothered in gravy and the peach cobbler and the caviar and the champagne and the cheesecake she used to have flown to the West Coast from New York finally led to a serious health problem. So serious in fact that just seven months ago Carter felt she might die.

"I was very sick," she says now. "I had diabetes, ulcers, an enlarged heart and an irregular heartbeat. Everything that could go wrong with me was wrong with me. And I was incredibly unhappy. Doctors told me I was obese, and I told them it was their imagination."

Carter will not say what she weighed then—or now—but in May she embarked on a crash diet that melted 81 pounds from her portly frame. Along the way, the 34-year-old brassy actress and singer also separated from her husband of 18 months, became a born-again Christian and moved out of her lush hillside home for a more modest "flatland" house in Los Angeles. She no longer needs medication for diabetes, her heart trouble is cured and she has undergone a complete attitude change.

"I don't want to go too deeply into what finally happened to send me to the hospital in April and May," she says, "but I was afraid I was going to die. Let's put it this way: I was in there because I was crazy. That is about as personal as I want to get about it. I was a crazed person. You can call it a breakdown, you can call it anything you want, but I was just not right. I was far gone mentally and so terribly unhappy. I surrounded myself with people who fed on my insecurity...totally decadent people. I was not an alcoholic, but I did drink. It was a terrible period in my life."

After her physical ills and her emotional despair forced her into the hospital, she finally admitted to herself that her weight had become a serious problem. In 1982 she had dropped 22 pounds after a hospital stay and a bad bout with bronchitis, but the pounds crept back. Co-workers on Gimme a Break became so concerned for her health that they volunteered to diet with her if that would be an incentive.

But then things became strained on the set of Gimme. Carter was temperamental and quarrelsome. The wardrobe department, without telling Carter, had begun letting out the seams in her dresses and then replacing the dresses with larger ones to accommodate the extra pounds. Then, she says, people started making pointed comments about her size. She began having trouble breathing and became easily exhausted.

Then came what she dramatically calls her "pact with God." "I had to want to lose weight myself," she says. "I had reached the point where I didn't give a damn what people thought. But when I lay there in that hospital I realized that I wanted to live. I looked up to heaven, and I prayed that, if God would just let me live to be 35, I would completely change my life. Until that moment I thought I knew all about Jesus and religion, but I didn't know what it meant to be born again. I am not a religious fanatic, but I prayed and suddenly I felt different."

Her first act was to call the hospital dietician and order up a diet. Lettuce and tomatoes were placed before her and that's what she ate—this high-liver who once ran up a $750 tab at one sitting at L.A.'s fashionable Scandia Restaurant. What's more, she stuck to the diet. "I had the Bible right there by my bed and, because I had made the promise with God, I was afraid to go back on my word. Besides, I thought I was going to die."

Carter's diet is mainly roast chicken and pineapple. "I stick to my chicken for three weeks and then have nothing but vegetables for a short time," she explains. Now, she cannot bear the sight of her once beloved caviar and steaks. "I've managed to completely reeducate myself into making eating secondary. I used to eat all the time because the food was there. Now I feel like a kid in school who is gaining points for behaving. And I love myself for it."

The change has been dramatic, says Gimme's Lara Jill Miller (Samantha): "Nell likes herself now, and before she didn't. I don't think I have ever seen such a radical change in anyone. Now, she has people as friends, not props that she needs to help support her."

And about that other excess weight she dropped: to wit, one husband? "We're good friends," Carter says of 30-year-old Austrian businessman Georg Krynicki, whom she wed in May 1982. "But he works in New York and I work in L.A. Neither of us will commit adultery [during our separation]. I was never totally into marriage, and I wasn't a very good wife. I would like to get married again someday. But I haven't gotten out of this one yet, so I can't be making plans. I wouldn't be surprised if we end up seeing each other again. But, once he gets his papers, there will be no more sex. I'm sorry—that's it. All rights are closed."

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