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.
Yes, a different car was smashed up, the bashed up one has different rims than in prev shots. As kids we’d see much more blatant differences in cars, scene to scene, like the loss of hubcaps on The Rockford Files that miraculously reappeared in a later scene, we were cars nuts and saw those little things.
Thank goodness. PeterB, where were you thirty-five years ago when I needed someone to point this out?? Better late than never, so thank you!
Painful to scroll thru.
This Olds being wasted in 1985 is comparable to wasting a 2006 whatever today. It’s scary to think about it in those terms.
I somewhat remember this show especially, of all things, the opening credits. It’s where Nell Carter is using the vacuum and leans over, resting the wand inside the fish tank and vacuuming up a few fish.
Having just read the wiki entry for Carter, she was approximately 37 in these pictures. She also witnessed her father being electrocuted by a downed power line.
Jason, your comment (and XR7 Matt’s, below) had me thinking about the differences between what a 14 / 15 year old car now seems like compared to when this show aired. For a convertible, I think that maybe Nell would have purchased Addy’s 2006 Chrysler Sebring convertible. That sounds about right.
I also often look up the ages of actors and actresses at the time of airing, relative to my current age. Nell Carter did see a lot.
Great write-up Joseph. I hate to point this out but this is a 1970 Cutlass. Also, Telma Hopkins was, along with Joyce Wilson, the Dawn of Tony Orlando & Dawn, a trio which had several Top 40 smash hits in the early and mid ’70’s.
“Telma Hopkins was, along with Joyce Wilson, the Dawn of Tony Orlando & Dawn”
Ahhhh, I knew I recognized her name! Good catch.
Alas, it’s a ’71. My screenshots from my phone are a little blurry, so I could see how it looks like a ’70 from my lead-off photo.
I was going to mention Dawn, but I was already over 1,500 words with my rough draft! Ms. Hopkins has done a lot. Also really liked her as Aunt Rachel on “Family Matters”.
Thelma Hopkins is also the back-up singer who – quite clearly – says the line, “Shut your mouth!,” on Isaac Hayes’s hit song, “Theme from Shaft.”
I am right there with you on hating to see a car destroyed on TV. In this case the car casting is odd, because a Cutlass convertible was always cool, even at several years old. And was probably less likely to be a lemon than a lot of other cars from its era.
I have a special kinship with these, having fallen in love with a blue 72 Cutlass Supreme convertible with white vinyl interior on the showroom floor of Collins Oldsmobile in Fort Wayne in the summer of 1972. The green hardtop my mother eventually bought never measured up in my eyes.
In a previous CC, I think it was pointed out that this generation of Cutlass convertible was actually the best selling convertible of its time, meaning there were probably still plenty of them on the street in 1985.
With that said, I would imagine the determining factors would simply be the producers were looking for the cheapest, most available, largest convertible they could find (that one shot of Nell Carter in the driver’s seat looks like a tight fit) , so the Cutlass got the nod.
As to the wanton destruction of desirable old cars, I don’t think the routine demolishing of 1969 Dodge Chargers in The Dukes of Hazzard will ever be beaten for that ignoble award.
I can almost give Dukes a pass given they were 10-15 year old cars at the time – roughly the same age as if there were a current show destroying an early LX Charger each episode.
I wince much more when they do it in recent times, like in the fast and the furious series. The excuse that “the car was in bad shape” doesn’t hold water, as every singly movie car you see use SoCal bodys with little rust, which are impossible to find under $15k anywhere else.
Rudiger, Dukes of Hazzard is a good counterpoint. I loved that show when I was growing up, and perhaps it was a testament to my ability to suspend my disbelief that led me to believe that all those Chargers didn’t actually get destroyed unless they did so in the plot line.
All of those Dodge Monacos and Plymouth Fury police cars, though… they all were toasted, and I believed it. I was also sad to see Daisy’s Plymouth Road Runner go off the cliff, thanks to her cousins.
Technically it was a satellite, her original car in the early episodes was an actual 74 Roadrunner but they sneakily switched it with a 71 Satellite with 73-74 style stripes, and presumably more than a few were wrecked in prior stunts like the Chargers.
Don’t forget Matador police cars too!
There is still a group smashing “Dukes’ of Hazard” ’69 Chargers in a traveling stunt show. They also performed the stunt on the streets of Cobo Hall during the last Detroit Auto Show. http://www.northeastohiodukes.net/?fbclid=IwAR2qbD_3nC4_Q36MipSWW4nBmNotsoq3cv4B1_YDmUiR2YoGGZu2TFNKgbE
i am sure some of you have seen this… that olds handles don’t it
Motorweek’s gearshift wranglers have got nothing on the manhandling that was handed to that 4-speed. Those Bud Lindemann road tests showed some impressive track drifts sometimes, but the drag races and braking tests were strictly amateur hour. Floor it and peel for the drags and full-lockup stops.
Got that right brother. WTF was up with the braking test? If you just lock the tires fast your brakes exit the equation. Its just you tires dissipating energy…and sometimes the tester is cranking the wheel with locked tires. AND the horrible engine dubbing….best example is the jaguar E type that apparently has a V8!
Other fun ones…search for the 69 impala nearly cornering on rims, and the Torino cobrajet with tires apparently made of black dust.
Still quite enjoyable…BTW i dont think they noted it , but I would guess that the Olds MIGHT not have been a “relaxed” highway cruiser! But compare it to a lot of the understeering pigs ( a lot of fords….and I like fords bTW)
I wonder if they did those tests for real for stats and filmed the foot to the floor tire spinning and screeching for dramatic effect. If their driver was adept enough at flinging some of these boats around corners he surely knew threshold braking and how to accelerate from a standing start.
As a viewer, this is indeed 1000% more exiting to watch than dry data driven Motorweek. These Budd Lindemann tests are more like proto Clarkson era Top Gear.
Hey, Joseph, great article. Would love to have seen this episode. However, i gotta’ say that at least the car in the 1st pic is a ’70. Either that, or a ’71 or ’72 with a ’70 front clip. The square park lights, along with the body-colored piece that’s attached to the hood (like a big tooth: see your other picture with the hood open) is a dead giveaway. I’ve owned several ’70-’72s and can tell U from painful experience, the difference. After having that Snaggletooth on my ’70 Rallye 350 peel my head down to the white meat from leaning up after working under the hood. ! The mechanics back then must’ve raised so much sand (and lost so much blood) that Olds decided to make that piece a part of the grille area and not the hood. Just Sayin’ .And Yeah, i still own that Rallye 350, since ’96. Yep, I’m a Glutton for Punishment.
Ed, I can’t even imagine having getting hit on the head or back of the neck with that snaggletooth on the hood! Looking again at the still from the show, and hearing your description, I wince a little bit.
Agree 100% with you Ed about that hood design. My father had a 1970 cutlass as a company car and I smacked my head more than a few times on that protrusion. Two more ways to tell a 1970 Cutlass from a 1971 are the gas cap and the front sidemarker lights. The 1970, at least on all cars except California, did not have the federally mandated evaporation control system with the carbon canister to store unburned fuel vapors and thus had a vented gas cap. The 1971 gas cap would let air in but not out. Beginning in 1971 the front sidemarker lights flashed in unison with the turn signals. When the vehicle lights were off, the front sidemarkers flashed on at the same time with the turn signals or 4-way hazards. When the lights were on, the front sidemarkers alternated with the turn signals or 4-way hazards.
Glenn, thank you for these mnemonic devices. Very helpful. When I was looking at pictures of both 1970 and ’71 Cutlasses, I did realize I can tell them apart (even if not by the cues you pointed out), but what probably threw me here was that in my mind I had remembered the car as a ’71 from childhood. The memory can be a tricky thing!
I’m so embarrassed. As Glenn Swisher, Jr. and Ed Anderson have pointed out, “Nell’s new car” was a ’70 Cutlass, and not a ’71. Maybe I had misremembered it as a ’71 as I was writing this.
Seeing that I’m off work today, I actually have time to fix it.
The car is first seen around 12:34 in the episode posted below:
Oh, wow. I remember watching that episode when it was new, on channel 31, KDVR. Let’s see, 1985, so we still had our 19″ RCA black-and-white television set from about 1978. I’d say the signal came in via rabbit ears, but that set had only a single telescoping antenna mast, like a car’s. Big round VHF and UHF channel selector knobs, small round volume, V-hold, H-hold, and Brightness knobs, and a push/push power button.
I still remember both the early and late theme songs to that show, too. And when I go digging round the net for episodes, I find they didn’t always only ever just go for cheap laff-track lines; they took on some real issues and handled them in a surprisingly progressive and enlightened manner by the standards of the day.
Nell Carter was terrific. Her personal story is tragic.
And there was a similar plot in “Mama’s Family” (“Mama Buys a Car”, season 2, episode 13).
I love the very 80’s theme song sung by Nell Carter used in the later seasons!
Daniel, I also remember both theme songs. The newer one (which I also really liked) seemed to be more in step with with Nell Harper’s more glamorous, with-it persona by that point in the show.
And I agree that they tackled many issues in a way that really impresses me as an adult today. Like, whoa. I’m not saying it was all Emmy-worthy, but for a ’80s sitcom, I can’t imagine a show today touching some of that stuff in the same sort of responsible, sympathetic way. With or without a laugh track.
I’m completely shocked, in retrospect, that half-mummified network execs didn’t have a(nother) heart attack about some of the topics they covered on that show, and how. A gay police officer treated as other than the butt (Zing! Hah! Lafftrack!) of jokes, teen(ish) pregnancy, gun violence in the home, family members dying of cancer, racial tension…
(And yeah, the later theme song as heard in the episode linked above is a far better fit.)
I can recognize every car made since the post WW2 redesigns. In old TV shows, I was also always upset when cars got ruined. I loved the 49 Mercury Woody on The Mod Squad. I even made a model kit of it. Then in one episode, they drove it off a cliff. I was traumatized. Then the just drove around in some generic Mopar car of the day. The show lost something after that.
I was also frustrated when they would destroy a car, but substitute something not even close. On Gomer Pyle, Gomer is entrusted with taking care of Sgt Carter’s 1960 Dodge hardtop. The one with the fastback styling. A series of near misses occur where the car is almost destroyed. Finally, they drop a wrecking ball on it. But they replaced the fastback hardtop with a notchback 2dr Sedan with a window post. The whole back of the car looks different and they think we are too stupid to notice.
But the worst I ever saw was on some show I don’t remember. The character is driving a 61 or so Lincoln Continental Sedan. The car they wrecked was a 58-60 Lincoln sedan. Seriously? How did they think that we would not notice one of the sleekest most gorgeous cars ever produced replaced by one of the gaudiest ugliest beasts ever produced.
Does anyone else notice these things?
Rick, I’m sure there were more than a few instances of this vehicle substitution on “CHiPs” (one show that comes to mind), but since it’s still sort of fresh in my mind because I referenced it last month, “Charlie’s Angels” didn’t even try to make you think it was the same car being blown up.
One of the classic TV show cable channels was showing reruns of “Mod Squad” (maybe right after Peggy Lipton had passed last year), so I’ll have to see if there are some of those episodes floating around.
Not a convertible, but my co-worker and friend had a ’70 Cutlass (I think it was a hand-me-down from his father) back in the early 80’s for many years…it was a 4 door sedan, but he had done some stuff to it with a loud exhaust and he put a fan clutch on the 350.
I didn’t appreciate it much at the time, but the 350/Turbo-Hydramatic was a keeper. I think he kept it through the late 80’s when he bought a Pontiac Firebird; I wasn’t keen on the Firebird either but he didn’t keep it long, trading it for a pickup.
Another acquaintance I knew had a ’72 version of the convertible; never got a ride in it, but it was pretty showy in bright yellow.
Closest I probably came was my parent’s ’65 F85 Wagon…not very close, but it was a good basic car, a step up from their previous ’63 Rambler Wagon.