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Actress Nell Carter Dies at 54

Nell Carter, who played the stout, sassy housekeeper on the 1980s sitcom Gimme a Break! and won a Tony Award in 1978 for her sultry turn in the Broadway musical Ain't Misbehavin', died Thursday at 54.

The singer-actress collapsed in her Beverly Hills home and was found by her 13-year-old son Joshua, spokesman Roger Lane said. The cause of death was not immediately known.

Carter had suffered from diabetes for years, Lane said, and she underwent two brain operations in 1992 to fix aneurysms. She recovered and continued to perform, mostly on stage.

At the time of her death, Carter was in rehearsals at a Long Beach theater for Raisin, a musical version of A Raisin in the Sun. That show was set to run from Feb. 7 to March 9, and is expected to continue with a replacement.

Shashin Desai, co-director of the show with his wife, Karen, said he felt like "the roof caved in" when he heard about Carter's death. "It wasn't for the money that she was doing the show, it was for the passion and love of the piece," he said.

Blessed with a big voice and strong stage presence despite her 4-foot-11 height, the heavyset Carter prided herself on her range as a performer, doing musicals and drama as well as comedy.

"She was a pioneer in many ways," said fellow Tony winner Audra McDonald. "She had the ability to be such an incredible comedic musical-theater actress, blow a song all the way to the back of the wall and then come down and be so intimate and beautiful in a ballad."

In addition to her Tony for Ain't Misbehavin', Carter received an Emmy in 1982 for a TV broadcast of the show, which was a revue of Fats Waller songs. Her quietly soulful number "Mean to Me" was a show highlight.

Carter garnered two more Emmy nominations in 1982 and 1983 for Gimme a Break!, playing a housekeeper to a family headed by a widower who was the town police chief. The show ran from 1981 to 1987. In 1985, an episode was broadcast live -- the first for a situation comedy in nearly 30 years.

Carter also played the cruel orphanage operator Miss Hannigan in the 1997 revival of Annie and appeared in the movies The Grass Harp (1995), Modern Problems (1981) and Hair (1979).

Carter grew up in Birmingham, Ala., singing in her church choir. She sang on the gospel circuit before moving on to coffeehouses and nightclubs. She longed to sing opera, then aspired to be a belter.

She converted to Judaism in the early 1980s after marrying a Jewish businessman from Austria, Georg Krynicki. "I needed to know where God was, and I went back to the basics," she said of her conversion.

From early in her career until the mid-1980s, Carter struggled with alcohol and drugs, eventually shaking her addictions through a 12-step program.

Carter was married and divorced twice. She is survived by an adult daughter, Tracy, and two sons, Joshua and Daniel, both 13.