One of my favorite shows from childhood was “Gimme A Break!”, starring the late actress and singer Nell Carter. She was a legitimate thespian, having won Tony and Emmy awards for her work in the musical “Ain’t Misbehavin'” both before and after being cast in this sitcom which aired on NBC from the fall of 1981 through the spring of ’87. The primary role of her character of Nell Harper evolved over the course of this show’s six-year run, but during what are probably known as the best loved and remembered episodes, she played a housekeeper and female head household figure to the family of her late friend Margaret Kanisky, Margaret’s widower police chief Carl, and the three Kanisky sisters, Katie, Julie and Samantha.
On her deathbed, Margaret had asked Nell, who was then working as a nightclub singer, to raise her three girls. Nell reluctantly agreed, and over the course of the series, one could see character development of the entire unit to reflect ownership of each other as family, even if there was never even a hint of sexual interest or tension portrayed between Nell and the chief. Another form of modern co-parenting, if you will. After both actor Dolph Sweet and his character of Chief Kanisky passed away during the show’s fourth season, Nell was left basically as the single parent of the household. “Grandpa” Stanley Kanisky, Carl’s father, played by John Hoyt, was also a mainstay of the show, with his expertly timed deadpans and takes, and dryly delivered anecdotes.
Around the fourth season of the show, the character of Adelaide “Addy” Wilson, played by underrated actress and singer Telma Hopkins, appeared as a regular on the show as one of Nell’s childhood friends and the embodiment of the “modern Black woman”, in Addy’s own words, in contrast to Nell’s work as a homemaker and housekeeper. Addy worked as an educator at a local university, was a Phi Beta Kappa key, was always impeccably put together, portrayed a gift for diplomacy and reason, and was the perfect comic foil for Nell who was, by contrast, more boisterous, earthier, and less inhibited. Both were smart, savvy women, but many plotlines revolved around the basic personality differences in these two best friends.
One such episode was “Nell’s New Car“, which first aired on Saturday, November 23, 1985. I’m not overly worried about giving away spoilers for a show that aired over thirty years ago, but if you are still curious and don’t want me to spoil the plot for you, just click the “back” button and read other Curbside content for today. The basic premise of this episode was that the one Kanisky family car was simply inadequate for the transportation needs of Nell, Grandpa, and the three teenage girls. An opportunity has presented itself for Nell to purchase Addy’s car, since Addy had recently begun to make more money and is now in the position to move up to something nicer.
The car Addy is selling is a baby blue 1970 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme convertible that appears to be in fine condition. According to the auto editors of Consumer Guide, only 11,354 Cutlass Supreme convertibles were produced for ’70, and the ’72 would be the Cutlass droptop’s last before being reintroduced for the 1990 model year, eighteen years later. Even a young kid like me could already sense what the moral of the story was going to be when Nell agreed to buy her friend’s car, long before Grandpa warned Nell by way of relating an old proverb from his “old country” of Poland.
Unfazed, Nell is still convinced that both her new-to-her Oldsmobile and her friendship with Addy are rock solid. While taking Grandpa out for a leisurely spin with the top down, the car breaks down at an intersection right when Nell agrees to return to the house at Grandpa’s request… and what a breakdown it is. In one of the best pieces of car-eography I’ve ever watched, the Cutlass’s tires go flat, the hood pops open, steam comes out, and the driver’s side door drops to the ground from its hinges – all in a rapid-fire, sequential fashion.
At this point during my first viewing, I was already feeling terrible for this car. Even if by 1985 this ’70 Cutlass was a fifteen-year-old, V8-powered “gas-guzzler” by the standards of the four cylinder-powered Eighties, I still thought it looked fantastic, it was in my favorite color even if not my favorite shade, and had style for days. Between this ’70 Cutlass and, say, an ’83 Dodge 600 convertible, there would have been no contest, even back then, of which car I would have rather owned if I was of driving age.
As an aside, my very first barber, a gentleman and U.S. military veteran named Clint, had owned a blue ’72 Cutlass Supreme that he often parked in front of his barber shop, and it had been his car that had set me on the fast track, even as a pre-schooler, to loving this generation of Olds A-body. I can remember being at eye-level with the hood of that car, and beholding its lines and curves, the glint of its chrome, and the sparkle of the metal flecks in its paint. It had the color-matched Super Stock wheels, which set off its overall look. That ’72 Cutlass may well have been the first car I really admired that I was able to get that close to.
Back at the Kanisky house, it has been discovered that Nell and the Olds have been to the mechanic shop, where Nell has been informed that the Cutlass convertible will require $1,600 to repair – a sum equal to the amount Nell had agreed to pay Addy for the car in the first place! Nell calls Addy over to the house to try to nullify their purchase agreement, but Addy isn’t having it. Almost immediately after a big fight after which Addy leaves, Nell leaves a message on Addy’s answering machine (remember those?), apologizing and asking Addy to meet her for lunch.
The next thing we see is Nell having parallel parked the Cutlass across the street from the restaurant, having painted “ADDY SOLD ME THIS LEMON” on the side of both doors in yellow paint (in all caps, no less), accompanied by a football-shaped lemon. At this point, I could no longer really enjoy this episode and had started to check out, so to speak. Clearly, Nell had gotten this car back into some semblance of running order (and the driver’s door put back on), so what I couldn’t understand was why she defaced this poor Cutlass, or how she expected Addy to want to take back her former car with its now-ruined paint.
I remember that I kept thinking, “Please let those be poster paints or something that would easily wash off the car without damage!”, but once I started to do that, I realized that my suspension of disbelief, an absolute requirement of sitcom viewing (even moreso in the 1980s), had been broken and violated.
The ensuing argument between Nell and Addy at Skipper Dwayne’s seafood restaurant and the threatening of their friendship is hard enough to take, but the next scene leaves me positively gutted. The Maître D’ gets on the loudspeaker to announce that a “cute little convertible with a lemon painted on the side” has just been sideswiped by a cement truck while parked across the street from the restaurant.
I held my breath as Nell and Addy bolted up from their table, rushed outside, and witnessed this: what had been, less than fifteen minutes ago, a pretty, blue 1970 Cutlass convertible in great apparent shape, now defaced with yellow paint, irreversibly crunched up on the three sides visible to the camera angle. The other members of my family who were watching this show with me might have elicited the laugh, chuckle, or “oh, my” intended by the script writers.
Not me, though. I went to bed that night feeling sorry for that poor car. I lost sleep over witnessing the death of what had appeared to be a perfectly serviceable ’70 Cutlass convertible. I kept thinking and hoping in my mind that a different basketcase Cutlass painted in the same color must have been substituted at the last minute for the final scene. Yes, that had to be it. That nice Cutlass didn’t actually get destroyed. The rest of the plot didn’t even matter at that point. Suffice it to say that there was some sort of resolution at the end between the two friends… of course, with a twist, but again, I really didn’t care.
To summarize my thoughts on all of this, my main takeaway is that I realize that one of my core values must be an aversion to needless destruction of property for entertainment or shock value, especially cars. Especially classic Cutlass convertibles that were already classics when they were destroyed before my very eyes, on what was supposed to be a situation comedy show that was supposed to make me laugh and not cry myself to sleep. To Nell Carter, rest in sweet power. To Telma Hopkins, please act again in something so all of us can celebrate your amazing comedic gifts. To television and movie producers everywhere, CGI effects are just fine to simulate the wanton destruction of nice things. That is all.