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‘Gimme a Break!’ cast: Surprising Facts About Nell Carter and her TV Family


Gimme a Break! was a beloved sitcom that graced television screens from 1981 to 1987. Created by Mort Lachman and Sy Rosen, the show centered around the lives of the Kanisky family and their housekeeper, Nell Harper. With a cast lead by the incomparable Nell Carter, her character Nell was the heart and soul of Gimme a Break!, earning her fame and admiration.

Here are surprising facts about the show and cast of Gimme a Break!

Nell Carter as Nell Harper

Nell Carter as Nell Harper (Gimme a Break (then and now))
1987/2003Fotos International / Contributor/Getty; Vinnie Zuffante / Stringer/Getty

Before she became the lovable Nell Harper, Nell Carter had already made a name for herself in the world of entertainment. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1948, Carter began her career in theater, landing roles in various Broadway productions. Her big break came in 1978 when she starred in the musical Ain’t Misbehavin’, a tribute to the legendary Fats Waller.

Her outstanding performance earned her a Tony award. Carter’s success on Broadway opened doors to television, leading her to the role that would define her career – Nell Harper on Gimme a Break!

Carter’s portrayal of Nell Harper, a strong, independent African-American woman taking on the role of a live-in housekeeper for a widowed police chief and his three daughters, brought humor, warmth, and authenticity to the character, challenging stereotypes and capturing the hearts of viewers.

Nell Harper was a force to be reckoned with, balancing her responsibilities as a housekeeper with her maternal instincts and quick-witted humor. Carter’s portrayal earned her two Emmy award nominations and two Golden Globe nominations.

After the series, Carter starred in her own sitcom, You Take the Kids, and guest starred in various television shows and films, including Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper and Reba.

Carter passed away in 2003 at the age of 54. She suffered from diabetes and other health issues.

Did you know? It was rumored that the Gimme a Break! producers were concerned about Nell Carter’s challenges with drugs, binge eating, rapidly fluctuating weight, and a self-destructive lifestyle. She went into rehab several times during production. In one instance, Carter’s good friend, Liza Minelli, flew her to a rehab center in Minnesota, where she underwent treatment and lost over 90 pounds.

Nell Carter was also the only cast member to appear in every episode.

Dolph Sweet as Chief Carl Kanisky

Dolph Sweet as Chief Carl Kanisky (Gimme a Break (then and now))
Dolph Sweet and Victoria Carroll (1987)

Dolph Sweet, born in New York City in 1920, had an extensive career in both theater and television before joining the cast of Gimme a Break!

Sweet’s career started on Broadway, where he appeared in numerous productions, showcasing his versatile acting skills. In the 1960s, he transitioned to TV and he gained recognition for his roles in popular shows like The Defenders and The Doctors and the Nurses.

Sweet’s portrayal of Chief Carl Kanisky, the widowed police chief raising his three daughters, brought a sense of authority and warmth to the character. Kanisky was a loving father and boss, and his interactions with Nell Harper formed the heart of the show. Sweet’s chemistry with Harper added depth to the sitcom, making it a family favorite.

Tragically, Sweet’s career and life were cut short when he passed away in 1985 at the age of 64. His death (from cancer) occurred during the season five filming of Gimme a Break!, leading to a storyline where Chief Kanisky also passed away. The show aired for two more seasons, with Nell becoming the surrogate mother to Chief Kanisky’s children.

Did you know? Sweet’s final episode of Gimme a Break!  aired May 11, 1985, three days after he died.

Kari Michaelsen as Katie Kanisky

Kari Michaelsen as Katie Kanisky (Gimme a Break (then and now))
1982/2018MediaPunch / Contributor/Getty;MediaPunch / Contributor/Getty

Kari Michaelsen played the role of Katie Kanisky, the middle daughter in the Kanisky family. Katie was portrayed as a typical teenager, navigating the challenges of adolescence with humor and wit. Michaelsen’s performance added a youthful energy to the show, complementing the dynamics within the Kanisky household.

Born in 1961, Michaelsen began her career as a child actor and model. Her early exposure to the entertainment industry led to various television commercials and guest appearances on popular shows like The Incredible Hulk, Eight is Enough, and Diff’rent Strokes. She landed the role of Katie Kanisky on Gimme a Break! at the age of 18.

Following the series, Michaelsen made a few guest appearances in TV shows, including Fantasy Island, Hart to Hart, and Full House. She also became a motivational speaker and does public appearances.

Did you know? Michaelsen beat out Helen Hunt for the role of Katie on Gimme a Break! Singer Whitney Houston made a guest appearance on the show, playing Rita, a friend of Katie Kanisky.

Lara Jill Miller as Samantha Kanisky in the Gimme a Break! cast

Lara Jill Miller as Samantha Kanisky
1990/2016 Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer/Getty; Matt Winkelmeyer / Stringer/Gett

Lara Jill Miller, born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1967, began her career on Broadway in The Music Man with Dick Van Dyke. She also appeared in several commercials before her big break in Gimme a Break!. Miller played the youngest Kanisky daughter, Samantha. Samantha’s precocious and endearing personality added a special element to the Kanisky family dynamic and solidified her place among the memorable child actors of the 1980s.

After the series, Miller had roles in several shows, including The Amanda Show, General Hospital, and iCarly. She also did a lot of voice work, including Clifford’s Puppy Days, Curious George, and most recently, The Ghost and Molly McGee.

Did you know? In addition to acting, Miller went to law school. She then passed the bar exam in three states (New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania).

Lauri Hendler as Julie Kanisky in the Gimme a Break! cast

Lauri Hendler as Julie Kanisky
1983/2018Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer/Getty; Lilly Lawrence / Contributor/Getty

Lauri Hendler, born in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, in 1965, began her acting career at a young age. Before joining the cast of Gimme a Break!, Hendler appeared in commercials and had guest roles on television shows like Chips, Three’s Company,  and Magnum, P.I.

RELATED: ‘Three’s Company’ Cast: Behind the Scenes Secrets and Follow the Stars Through Time

After the series, she was in several ABC Afterschool Specials (remember those?) as well as guest roles on many popular shows, including The West Wing, Charmed, ER, Veep, and Young Sheldon.

She has been married to Steven Reizes since 1990.

Did you know? Hendler was upset and caught by surprise when she was cut from Gimme a Break! in part because she had recently purchased a new house.

Joey Lawrence as Joey Donovan in the Gimme a Break! cast

Joey Lawrence as Joey Donovan 
1983/2017Michael Ochs Archives / Handout/Getty; David Livingston / Contributor/Getty

In 1983, Joey Lawrence won the role of Joey Donovan, and he continued in that role until the series ended in 1987.

Prior to appearing in the series, Lawrence had guest spots on Diff’rent Strokes and Silver Spoons.

After Gimme a Break!, Lawrence starred in the hit TV show Blossom.

In addition to being an actor, Lawrence was also passionate about music and recorded his first album, self-titled Joey Lawrence, in 1993.

He also starred in the show Melissa and Joey, opposite Melissa Joan Hart, from 2010-2015. In 2022, Lawrence competed in season eight of The Masked Singer. Most recently, in 2023, Lawrence launched a podcast called Brotherly Love with his siblings Andrew and Matthew.

RELATED: Melissa Joan Hart Opens Up About Her Favorite Role, Learning to Say ‘No’ and the Cause Close to Her Heart (EXCLUSIVE)

He’s been married three times and has one daughter.

Did you know? During the breaks from Gimme a Break!, Lawrence would tour with Nell Carter.

For more 80’s TV and movies click through the links below!

‘Some Kind of Wonderful’ Cast: See the Stars From the 1987 Teen Romance Then and Now

The ‘Matlock Cast’: Surprising Facts about Andy Griffith and Crew Beyond the Courtroom

‘Highway to Heaven’: Surprising Facts About the Show’s Beloved Actors

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