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Gimme A Break Actors You Might Not Know Passed Away

A hit for NBC for much of its six-year run between 1981 to 1987, the sitcom "Gimme a Break!" introduced TV audiences to Tony- and Emmy-winning stage actress Nell Carter, who played an aspiring singer working as a housekeeper for a suburban police chief (Dolph Sweet) and his three rambunctious daughters (Kari Michaelsen, Lara Jill Miller, and Lauri Hendler). Though the formula worked well for the majority of its network run, "Gimme a Break" seemed to be in a constant state of flux, with two different theme songs (both sung by Carter), as well as an ever-expanding cast of characters that later included Joey Lawrence and his brother Matthew as foster kids, Rosie O'Donnell as Nell's neighbor, and Telma Hopkins as Nell's friend and occasional foil. The series was bounced from comfortable time slots on numerous occasions. In its fifth season, it jettisoned the majority of its cast and sent Nell to New York to begin a new life. The changes ultimately proved fatal to the series, which capped its run in 1987.

Given Carter and Hopkins' singing talents, the show frequently featured musicians as guest stars, including Whitney Houston and Sammy Davis Jr. Many others were drawn from features, stage, and television. A number of these guest stars, as well as a portion of the main cast, remain active on TV (Hendler and Miller are voice-over actors, while Hopkins remains a busy guest performer). However, others have retired or died since the show left the airwaves. The following is a spoiler-heavy list of the "Gimme a Break" actors you might not know passed away.  

Nell Carter rose from Broadway to TV stardom

Nell Carter won a Tony Award in 1979 for the hit musical "Ain't Misbehavin'," which showcased the songs of jazz composer and pianist Fats Waller. The popularity of the show and her brassy vocals brought her to the attention of television producers, who attempted to find a series suited to her outsized talents. After a brief run on "The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo"—a short-lived spin-off of "BJ and the Bear"—Carter was cast on "Gimme a Break." The sitcom was a hit with viewers and earned Carter Emmy and Golden Globe nominations; it also proved to be her greatest screen success, as subsequent screen projects failed to find an audience.

Carter began her career on the New York coffeehouse circuit before moving up to Broadway with "Ain't Misbehavin'." When "Gimme a Break" ran its course after six seasons, she returned to nightclubs while shopping around for a second series. A pilot for "Morton's By the Bay" failed to gain network traction, while her comedy series "You Take the Kids" collapsed after a month in 1991. She fared better as a co-star on "Hangin' with Mr. Cooper" and in guest roles on series like "Ally McBeal."

Off-screen, Carter suffered from various health conditions and personal challenges, including drug addiction, bouts with bankruptcy, and two failed marriages. The 54-year-old collapsed and died in her home on January 23, 2003. The coroner's office determined that the cause of death was most likely a combination of heart disease and diabetes.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Dolph Sweet's Chief defined gruff but lovable

Balancing Nell's easygoing charm was her employer, Carl Kanisky, a suburban California police chief and recent widower who honored his late wife's request to have Nell help raise their three daughters. A tough character with little patience for the nuances of parental care, the Chief —as he was known to most—found that Nell's influence improved his own temperament in addition to that of his kids.

The Chief was arguably character actor Dolph Sweet's best-known project in his career as a stage, screen, and television actor. A one-time semi-professional football player and boxer, Sweet came to acting in a highly unusual way: as a prisoner of war who performed plays with other inmates at a camp in Germany during World War II. Upon his return to the States, he studied English and drama at Columbia University and taught the latter at Barnard College before making his Broadway debut in 1961. Television and feature roles soon followed, including appearances on "Dark Shadows" and "Another World" and in films like Warren Beatty's "Heaven Can Wait" and "Reds" and Brian De Palma's "Sisters."

Sweet contracted stomach cancer during the fourth season of "Gimme a Break" and missed several episodes during that season due to surgery. He died of the disease on May 8, 1985; the show's producers wrote his death into the series for its fifth and final season, which saw Nell take over the Kanisky household.

Prolific character actor John Hoyt was the Kaniskys' Grandpa

"Gimme a Break" was the culmination of actor John Hoyt's long career. The stage, screen, and TV veteran, whose early years included membership in Orson Welles' famed Mercury Players and stints as a stand-up comic on the New York club circuit, played the Kanisky family's curmudgeonly grandfather, Stanley, as a recurring character in Season 1 before graduating to series regular from Seasons 2 through 6. Grandpa was a rare lighthearted role for Hoyt, who specialized in authority types—scientists, military men, judges, and the like—that he delivered with the utmost gravity.

Though Hoyt appeared in numerous features—from "Julius Caesar" with Marlon Brando and Stanley Kubrick's "Spartacus" to "Attack of the Puppet People" and the softcore parody "Flesh Gordon"—television was his primary showcase. He was a staple of Westerns and courtroom dramas, but also memorably played extraterrestrials on "The Twilight Zone," "The Outer Limits," and "Wonder Woman," as well as a member of the Quorum on "Battlestar Galactica" and Dr. Boyce on the "Star Trek" pilot "The Cage." 

Hoyt spent his final years in Santa Cruz, California, where he performed in a one-man show based on the Gospel of St. Mark. He died after a bout with cancer at the age of 85 on September 15, 1991.

Howard Morton was dim but duty-bound Officer Simpson

Serving under Chief Kanisky (and frequently complicating his attempts to remain calm) was Officer Ralph Waldo Simpson, played by actor Howard Morton. Simpson was cut from the same cloth as many dimwitted but lovable second bananas on TV (see also: Ed Norton on "The Honeymooners"): though easily confused, he loved his job and remained resolutely loyal to his superiors. Morton was a recurring cast member in Seasons 1 and 2 before moving up to series regular from Seasons 3 through 5; Simpson was axed, along with several other main characters, when the show's focus shifted to Nell and Joey in Season 6.

New York native Morton moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960s, and soon found work in comic guest roles on series like "My Favorite Martian," "Get Smart," and "I Dream of Jeannie." TV was his primary showcase, though he enjoyed occasional roles in features like "The Mechanic," with Charles Bronson, and John Huston's revisionist Western "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean." Producer Normal Lear made excellent use of his comic talents throughout the 1970s, including episodes of "Good Times" and "All in the Family" and a recurring role on his soap opera spoof "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman."

Morton had a recurring role on "One Day at a Time" (as the father of Julie's boyfriend, Chuck) and guested on other series like "ALF" while he was appearing on "Gimme a Break." When his tenure on that program ended, he segued to playing Grandpa on the syndicated "Munsters Today" from 1988 to 1991. After suffering a stroke in 1997, Morton died at the age of 71 on May 11 of that year. 

Nell needed a break from Rosetta LeNoire's Mama

Actress and activist Rosetta LeNoire appeared in 16 episodes of "Gimme a Break" as Maybelle "Mama" Harper, Nell's tart-tongued and highly critical mother. Actress Hilda Haynes played Mama in two episodes from Seasons 1 and 3; her take was much kinder and less abrasive than LeNoire's performance, which drew much of its humor from her ceaseless putdowns of her daughter. The character graduated from a recurring role to series regular in Season 6 when much of the cast was dismissed in an attempt to revamp the show's focus.

Born in 1911, LeNoire's early years were plagued by rickets, a disease that causes soft bones and bowed legs; she recovered from the condition with the help of her godfather, the tap dance legend Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. His dance instruction not only helped her regain her strength but also opened her heart to performing, which she began on the New York stage. Appearances in Broadway productions and Orson Welles' modern dress "Macbeth" (with John Hoyt) led to screen and television roles. LeNoire's greatest success came as the founder of the AMAS Theatre Company, which focused on non-traditional, multi-ethnic casts for its more than 60 productions. She also continued to act, most notably on "Amen" and "Family Matters" (as Mother Winslow).

For her efforts to bring together creative and racial equality, LeNoire received the National Medal of the Arts in 1999, while the Actors Equity Association named an annual award for theater producers who emphasize diversity in her name. She died at the age of 90 on March 17, 2002.

Pete Schrum pulled pranks as odd Uncle Ed

Among the many members of the Kanisky family who turned up on "Gimme a Break" was Carl's brother, Uncle Ed, played by Pete Schrum. A mortician by trade, Ed was primarily used as comic support in his nine episodes, though on a couple of occasions he was the focus of a storyline. Case in point: Season 2's "Love, Kidney," in which Ed asks his brother to donate his kidney for a life-saving transplant, and "Eddie Gets Married," in which Grandpa pressures Ed to marry his girlfriend, Maxine. The latter episode also marked Schrum's final appearance on the series.

The 7-foot-tall Schrum made his screen debut in "Delta House," the short-lived 1979 TV version of "Animal House," and moved frequently between small-screen and feature film projects over the next three decades. His movie credits included minor roles in studio efforts like "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" (he was the shotgun-toting bartender) and Jim Jarmusch's "Dead Man," as well as numerous indie and low-budget horror and sci-fi titles like "Trancers" and "Eliminators." TV guest shots included "Family Ties," "Silver Spoons, "Fantasy Island," and "Night Court." Schrum also played Santa Claus in a series of commercials for Coca-Cola that aired throughout the 1980s.

Schrum died of a heart attack at the age of 68 on February 17, 2003, less than one month after Nell Carter's death on January 23 of that year.

Jane Dulo was the show's longest running Grandma

Three actresses played Grandpa's wife, Mildred Kanisky, between Seasons 1 and 2 on "Gimme a Break." Elvia Allman and Elizabeth Kerr each played the role in one Season 1 episode before Jane Dulo, a veteran of numerous TV comedies, stepped in to play Grandma for eight episodes in Season 2. Save for two episodes—Season 1's "Grandma Fools Around," in which Grandpa discovered that Grandma had an affair, and Season 2's "Nell Gets Sick," which saw Grandma drive everyone crazy when she took over the Kanisky household—she was a minor character and was revealed to have died between Seasons 2 and 3.

However, Dulo was a hard-working and talented comic actor whose career on television began in the early 1950s. She enjoyed recurring roles on numerous classic sitcoms, including "The Phil Silvers Show," "The Jack Benny Program," "McHale's Navy" (as the amorous Nurse Molly), and "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Her TV work continued unabated into the late '60s with frequent appearances on "Get Smart" (as 99's mother) and a rare dramatic turn as a nurse on "Medical Center." She appeared in decidedly fewer films than TV series. Her big-screen credits included the Elvis Presley musical "Roustabout" and Sid and Marty Krofft's "Pufnstuf."

Dulo enjoyed guest shots on series well into the 1980s and 1990s, including multiple appearances on "Alice" and "Barney Miller." Her final small screen turn came in a 1992 episode of "The Golden Girls." The 81-year-old Dulo died of complications following heart surgery on May 22, 1994.

Don Sherman later inspired a popular TV comedy-drama

Don Sherman's six appearances on "Gimme a Break" were relegated to minor roles. He played various working stiffs and streetwise types, including a cab driver, plumber, and telephone installer, in three episodes between Seasons 1 and 2. Yet there was nothing average about his career outside the series. A stand-up comic who began his career while serving in the military, he became a staple of the New York and national club scene in the 1950s and 1960s, opening for major stars like Tony Bennett and Dinah Washington, and playing such storied locations as the Hungry I in San Francisco, the Tropicana in Las Vegas, and even New York's Apollo Theater.

Sherman later became an in-demand gag writer for other comics and wrote sketch comedy and scripts for series like "Bridget Loves Bernie" and "The Love Boat." Sherman also recorded a handful of comedy albums and briefly hosted a late-night horror TV showcase, "Sinister Cinema," on Los Angeles television. During this busy period, Sherman also remained active as a guest star on series like "Starsky & Hutch," "Barney Miller," and "Night Court." His most identifiable screen appearance was undoubtedly his cameo as Andy the bartender in "Rocky," which he reprised in four sequels in the Sylvester Stallone franchise.

Sherman's daughter, Amy Sherman-Palladino, later drew on her father's experiences while crafting the world of 1950s comedy for her series "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." He died at the age of 80 on June 15, 2012.

Yvonne Wilder's multi-faceted career included guest starring on Gimme a Break

Actress, comic, and writer Yvonne Wilder turned up in five episodes of "Gimme a Break" during its fifth and sixth seasons. Her roles were largely supporting turns that orbited Nell and her charges; for example, Wilder and former comedy partner Jack Colvin (Jack McGee from the '70s "Incredible Hulk" series) were feuding archaeologists in Season 6's two-parter "The Window." Wilder had a particular talent for bringing background characters to the forefront of viewers' attention.

A former stage actress and dancer, Wilder began her career in the London and international productions of "West Side Story" and later played Consuelo in Robert Wise's 1961 film version. She graduated to character and guest roles in features and on television, including recurring roles on "The Partridge Family" and "Operation Petticoat." She also had comic turns in Mel Brooks' "Silent Movie" and "The Last Married Couple in America" with former "West Side Story" co-star Natalie Wood.

With husband and director Robert Kelljan, she co-wrote and co-starred in his 1971 cult horror favorite "The Return of Count Yorga" and later had recurring roles on "Archie Bunker's Place" and "The Equalizer." She was perhaps best known for her long-running turn as Jesse and Pam's mother, Irene Katsopolis, on "Full House." She remained with the latter series until 1991. She spent the remaining years of her life focused on painting and sculpting. Wilder died at the age of 84 on November 24, 2021.

A pre-fame Lynne Thigpen played Nell's sister Loretta

In addition to Mama Maybelle, "Gimme a Break" viewers were also introduced to Nell's sister, Loretta, who first appeared in the two-part Season Four episode "Alabamy Bound." Nell returned to Alabama to attend Loretta's wedding and discovered that the marriage had upended her mother's living arrangement, requiring her to move in with Nell. Loretta later returned in Season 5's "Family Reunion," which found her consulting Nell when her marriage hit a rocky patch.

Actress Lynne Thigpen, who played Loretta, was a seasoned stage performer with a handful of film and television credits, including "The Warriors," for which she provided the velvety tones of the DJ commenting on the action. By the late 1980s, she had graduated to more substantive parts on series like "L.A. Law" and features like "Lean on Me," which in turn led to a star-making turn as the Chief, the host and announcer for PBS's "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego." Thigpen netted six Daytime Emmy nominations for her performance and moved up to appearances in high-profile projects like Michael Mann's "The Insider" and the TV series "The District." Sadly, her successful run was cut short on March 12, 2003, when the 54-year-old actress died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Comedy great Jack Carter brought laughs to two episodes

Emmy-nominated comedy veteran Jack Carter lent his rapid-fire delivery to character roles in two early episodes of "Gimme a Break." He played a patient at the hospital Katie was sent to in Season 1's "The Emergency" and later returned in a minor role for Season 2's "Nell Goes to Jail," which found Nell on the wrong side of the phone company. Though the characters were largely background players, Carter lent them the brash comic timing and polish he had honed through decades as a stand-up in clubs and on television. Carter wanted to be an actor but found that his gift for jokes and impressions made him a popular act on radio and in nightclubs during World War II. After service in the Army, he began appearing on television and Broadway, which provided him with an opportunity to showcase his singing abilities. Appearances on variety series like "The Ed Sullivan Show" led to acting opportunities on dozens of television series and in occasional features. Carter also directed for television, most notably episodes of "Here's Lucy."

Carter remained active as a guest star into the 1990s and 2000s, when many of his comedy peers had retired and passed away. Though he lost out on the chance to play Arthur Spooner on "King of Queens," he voiced cartoon producer Wilbur Cobb for "The Ren and Stimpy Show"; guest appeared on series like "ER," "New Girl," and "Parks and Recreation"; and enjoyed a recurring role as the hateful bar owner Stan on "Shameless." Carter logged his final screen appearance in "Mercy," a 2014 adaptation of Stephen King's short story "Gramma." The 93-year-old died the following year on June 28, 2015.

Lewis Arquette fathered an acting dynasty

Actor Lewis Arquette's ability to imbue a minor role with nuance and humor was showcased in his two appearances on "Gimme a Break." He was a member of Nell's diet support group, which had to rescue its founder (the late Dennis Burkley) from a suicide attempt in Season 2's "Porko's II," and later appeared as a college basketball coach who was distraught after Sam's college classmate, Judy (Tonya Williams), left the team for the military in Season 6's two-parter "Parents' Week." 

A former manager of the Second City theater in Chicago, Arquette was a prolific guest player in features and on television from the early 1970s to the 2000s. The scion of comic actor Cliff Arquette, he is perhaps best remembered for his five children—actors Patricia, Rosanna, David, Alexis, and Richmond—all of whom went on to stardom in films and on TV. Lewis' star shone less brightly than those of his kids, but he was a part of numerous popular projects, including a long run on "The Waltons" and appearances in features like "Big Business," "The Great Outdoors," and "Waiting for Guffman."

Arquette also lent his voice to countless animated projects, including "Spawn," "Hypernauts," and "As Told By Ginger." He died at the age of 65 from congestive heart failure on February 10, 2001.

Serious stage actor Joseph Maher showed his funny side on Gimme a Break

Appearing opposite Cliff Arquette in Season 6's "Parents' Week" is actor Joseph Maher, who played Professor Dudley, a cranky educator at Sam's college. Maher—a go-to for distinguished figures with short fuses—enjoyed a handful of comic showcases in the episodes, including a scene in which he melted down over Nell's decision to encourage Judy to leave the college basketball team.

Born in Ireland, Maher was a Tony-nominated stage actor with a long association with the works of playwrights Joe Orton and Tom Stoppard. He began his career in Canada before relocating to New York, where he netted Tony nominations, a Drama Desk Award, and an Obie Award for productions of Orton's "Loot" and Stoppard's "Night and Day" in the 1970s and 1980s. His screen career began on Canadian TV in the late 1950s and segued to Stateside projects in the 1970s. His TV credits included "Wonder Woman" and "M*A*S*H*," while roles in features came with Warren Beatty's "Heaven Can Wait" (with Dolph Sweet) and Nicholas Meyer's "Time After Time."

Maher worked steadily in TV and films throughout the 1980s and '90s, including guest roles on "Seinfeld" (he was the plane passenger who sticks Jerry with his dog after falling ill) and "Thirtysomething." He also enjoyed character turns in "In & Out," "Mars Attacks!" and "Sister Act." His final screen credit in the Steve Martin/Goldie Hawn remake of "The Out-of-Towners" was posthumous: Maher died of a brain tumor on July 17, 1998, at the age of 64.

WKRP's Frank Bonner was both cop and criminal on Gimme a Break

Comic actor Frank Bonner made his first appearance on "Gimme a Break" just as his long and celebrated tenure as Herb Tarlek on "WKRP in Cincinnati" was coming to an end in 1982. In Season 2's "The Chief's Gay Evening," he played a police officer whose drag disguise led to a fellow cop (Eugene Roche) admitting his sexual orientation. He later returned in 1985 for Season 4's "Police Mamas," albeit on the other side of the law: Bonner was a traffic offender arrested by Simpson for an outstanding warrant. Amusingly, the character shares a name with then-NBC production executive and future network entertainment president Warren Littlefield.

Bonner was best known for playing the sartorially challenged Tarlek on both the original 1978-1982 run of "WKRP" and its syndicated revival in 1991. Between these assignments, he was a frequent guest star on numerous series, including "Night Court," "Murder, She Wrote," and "Evening Shade." He also co-starred as Father Robert on "Just the Ten of Us" and appeared as Mr. Harrington in five episodes of "Saved by the Bell: The New Class."

In addition to his acting career, Bonner directed for a number of television shows, including over a hundred episodes of "City Guys," as well as recurring gigs behind the camera on "Head of the Class," "Harry and the Hendersons," and "USA High." Bonner, who suffered from Lewy body dementia, died of complications from the disease at the age of 79 on June 16, 2021.

Fred McCarren was Joey's absent dad

Season 3 of "Gimme a Break" introduced Joey Donovan, a pint-sized con artist who became Nell's foster son. In Season 4, the pair traveled to the Crescent City for the two-part episode "New Orleans"; there, Joey ran into his father, a merchant seaman named Tim Donovan. Joey appeared to leave for Nome, Alaska with his father, but after a change of heart, he reunited with Nell at the end of "New Orleans Part 2."

Amiable character actor Fred McCarren played Tim Donovan in "New Orleans," though another actor, Patrick Collins, reprised the role for his return in Season 6. The Pennsylvania native, who at one point studied at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, began appearing in television commercials and episodic television series in the 1970s; occasional roles in features like "Xanadu," "The Star Chamber," and the cult horror favorite "The Boogens" followed in the 1980s.

McCarren relocated to Pennsylvania in the late 1980s to raise his six children with wife Lisa. There, he worked extensively in national and regional television and radio commercials. Diagnosed with cancer in the mid-2000s, he decided against treatment until undergoing surgery in 2006. McCarren ultimately died of colon cancer at the age of 55 on July 2, 2006.