In yet another variation on the “widower with children” sitcom, Gimme a Break! brought theatre actress Nell Carter to television as Nell Harper. In fulfilling a deathbed request, Nell moved in as housekeeper to her late friend’s family, the Kaniskys: crusty chief of police Carl and daughters Katie, Julie and Samantha. Nell acted as surrogate mother to the girls who, all in or near the adolescent years, needed a woman’s guidance. Also hanging around the Kanisky household was Carl’s dopey, shaky-voiced subordinate, Officer Ralph Simpson.
The cast of this family show was constantly growing, beginning with the addition of Carl’s equally gruff father, Stanley, and mother Mildred (though she was only on the show for that season). But the most surprising change came in 1983 with the addition of a new child. It’s standard practice for sitcom moms to give birth a few seasons in, but since there was no mom on this series (and no romance between Nell and Carl), the child came in the form of six-year-old abandonee Joey Donovan (Joey Lawrence, later of Blossom). Joey, with his bowl haircut and overalls, provided an element of cuteness the show had previously lacked.
There were now a wider variety of stories to tell, including the special bond building between Joey and Nell. The next season introduced Nell’s friend Dr. Addy Wilson, played by Family Matters’ Telma Hopkins. Given Carter’s extensive musical theatre background and that Hopkins had been half of Tony Orlando’s Dawn, the show was now infused with musical numbers. Also in 1984, Jonathan Silverman joined the cast as Julie’s boyfriend Jonathan Maxwell.
The show changed again in 1985 as Carl (and the actor who played him, Dolph Sweet) had died. The girls now had to deal with the fact that both parents were deceased, and Nell became more important than ever. But this set-up didn’t last long, and by the next season the show was completely revamped.
All three girls moved out of the house, while Nell, Addy, Joey and Grandpa moved to an apartment in New York City. Nell, who now worked in a publishing house, also took in Joey’s little brother Matthew (real-life brother Matthew Lawrence), who had been similarly neglected by their father. Additional characters to the revamped show included Nell’s mother Maybelle, building manager Marty, and neighbor Maggie O’Brian, played by then struggling stand-up comic Rosie O’Donnell.
By this time, Gimme a Break! had gone through one of the biggest overhauls in sitcom history, with Nell Carter herself as the only link between what the show started out as and what it became. After all the changes, the series finally came to a close in 1987, giving the cast and crew a well-deserved break from the rigors of TV production.
“Gimme a break, I sure deserve it,
It’s time I made it to the top…”
USA / NBC / x25 minute episodes / Broadcast 29 October 1981 – 12 May 1987
NELL CARTER as Nellie Ruth ‘Nell’ Harper
DOLPH SWEET as Chief Karl Kanisky (1981-85)
KARL MICHAELSON as Katie Kanisky
LAURI HENDLER as Julie Kanisky Maxwell
LARA JILL MILLER as Samantha Kanisky
HOWARD MORTON as Oficer Ralph Simpson
JOHN HOYT as Grandpa Stanley Kanisky
JANE DULO as Grandma Mildred Kanisky
PETE SCHRUM as Uncle Ed Kanisky
JOEY LAWRENCE as Joey Donovan
TELMA HOPKINS as Addy Wilson
ROSIE O’ DONNELL as Maggie O’ Brien