'Gimme a Break!' Star Nell Carter Dies

updated 01/23/2003 at 12:00 AM EST

originally published 01/23/2003 11:34AM

Nell Carter, 54, the Tony and Emmy Award-winning actress and singer best remembered for her role as the motherly, no-nonsense housekeeper on NBC's hit 1980s series "Gimme a Break!," died Thursday at her home in Beverly Hills, the Associated Press reports.

Carter collapsed in her home and was found by one of her two 13-year-old adopted sons, her publicist, Jeff Lane, tells the AP.

The exact cause of death is not known, but Lane says the entertainer suffered from diabetes for years. In 1992, she also underwent surgery for a near-fatal double aneurysm.

Despite her Broadway roots, Carter became a fixture on television in the '80s, starring on "Gimme a Break!" as Nell Harper, a housekeeper who helps a police chief widower take care of his children. The series, which ran from 1981 to 1987, earned Carter two Emmy nominations.

Raised in Birmingham, Ala., Carter moved to New York at age 19 and began singing at supper clubs before eventually making her stage debut in "Soon," a 1970 musical comedy costarring Richard Gere, Peter Allen and Barry Bostwick. She eventually jumped to productions such as "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Ain't Misbehavin'," a show that earned her a Tony Award in 1978. (She later won an Emmy for NBC's 1982 version of the musical.)

Despite her success on Broadway and in television, Carter grappled with obesity, alcoholism and cocaine addiction during the 1980s. In a 1994 memoir for PEOPLE magazine, Carter said an intervention by friends (one of whom was Liza Minnelli) and a trip to rehab saved her life. "Considering the state I was in, I would have been dead if they hadn't done that."

After recovering from her double aneurysm in 1992, Carter continued to work through the '90s. She appeared as Miss Hannigan in the 20th-anniversary revival of "Annie" in 1997, and most recently, she was in rehearsals at a Long Beach, Calif., theater for "Raisin," a musical version of "Raisin in the Sun."

Carter is survived by a daughter and two adopted sons.

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