“Gimme a Break!” told the story of a recently widowed police chief who hires a friend of his late wife to keep house and help him raise his three young daughters. The show premiered three years before “The Cosby Show” and featured Nell Carter as the black hired help for a white family, a concept that some critics contended hurt the show’s ratings when the upscale Huxtable family on “The Cosby Show” debuted. Regardless, the show was popular enough with viewers to last 6 years, from 1981 to 1987, although it never ranked above 30th place in the TV rankings. Let’s check out the ups and downs behind the scenes of the sitcom.
The Gold Rush
Although Gertrude, the family’s black goldfish, died in the very first episode of the show, it kept reappearing throughout the show’s six-year run, only to succumb over and over to such threats as an errant vacuum cleaner nozzle and a dusting of household cleanser powder, both at the hands of Nell.
About 10 years before actress Helen Hunt landed the lead in the sitcom “Mad About You,” which eventually won her three Emmys, she auditioned for the role of Katie Kanisky on “Gimme a Break!” She didn’t get the part but later appeared in one episode playing the character of Valerie, Katie’s pregnant friend.
Third Year Itch
Besides introducing a new theme song in season three, “Gimme a Break!” made some major cast changes. Grandma Kanisky died, Uncle Ed mysteriously disappeared (along with his new wife), Nell’s longtime friend Addy Wilson surfaced, and Joey Donovan, a 7-year-old orphan, was welcomed to the household under Nell’s wing.
Seems like Rosie O’Donnell has been around forever but in reality, her first TV role was on none other than “Gimme a Break!” in 1987. She played Maggie O’Brien in 11 episodes of the show after the format changed to Nell working at a publishing company. However, it was rough because…
Thorns And Thistles
Word on the set (and on the street) was that Nell and Rosie did not click on the set of “Gimme a Break!” Nell was allegedly jealous of Rosie hogging scenes and taking the focus off Nell. Nell reportedly wouldn’t speak to Rosie except on camera and would only call her by her character’s name, Maggie O’Brien. But then…
Apparently, Rosie wasn’t a big fan of Nell’s either. Sources claimed neither woman was friendly towards the other, which caused tension among the “Gimme a Break!” cast and crew on the 11 episodes Rosie appeared in. Years later, fences were mended when Nell appeared as a guest on Rosie’s talk show.
And The Hits Just Keep On Coming!
Disciplining your kids the way you saw fit (physically) was still an option, over 30 years ago. The police chief father on “Gimme a Break!,” Carl, is shown slapping two of his three daughters on two different episodes. Julie and Katie were each slapped but Samantha was spared. Dad also had a short memory…
You Must Remember This
Carl slapped Julie in episode 13 of season two (“Julie Smokes”) after becoming angry when catching her smoking a cigarette. He remarks on that episode that he had never laid a hand on his kids before. Guess he forgot that smack he gave Katie in the “Gimme a Break!” pilot.
During the trend in the early 90s to put the spotlight on all the child actors who ended up badly (in jail, addicted to some evil substance, penniless, etc.), Lara Jill Miller (Samantha) accused the young stars of lacking morality and chided the media for fueling the victim mentality fire. She also pointed out…
Eyes On The Prize
Miller had her own great success story to back up her claim that child stars were doomed. She started acting on “Gimme a Break!” at age 14. When the show ended, she went on to graduate from NYU, Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa. She then earned her JD from Fordham Law and passed the NY, NJ and PA Bars.
As an award-winning singer, she won a Tony Award for her performance in the Broadway musical “Ain’t Misbehavin,'” as well as an Emmy Award for the same role on television,“ Carter attracted stars to “Gimme a Break!” like Whitney Houston, Ray Parker Junior, Sammy Davis Junior and Andy Gibb to the show. But one of these guests didn’t sing…
Ray Parker Jr, Sammy Davis Jr, and Andy Gibb all sang duets with Carter when they appeared as guests on “Gimme a Break!” But Whitney Houston didn’t sing alone or with anyone else. She appeared only once on “Gimme a Break!” as Katie’s friend Rita on season 3, episode 20, in 1984.
“Gimme a Break!” was the very first show to air in NBC’s now legendary all-star Thursday night lineup. The back-to-back shows that ended up in what ultimately became notorious as “Must See TV” all became mega-hits for the network — except “Gimme a Break!” Can’t recall those hits? They included…
Historical And Sometimes Hysterical
Viewers seemingly believed the Thursday night shows on NBC were really “Must See TV.” The Emmy-winning, groundbreaking list of blockbusters eventually included “Cheers,” “Family Ties,” “The Cosby Show,” “Hill Street Blues,” “Seinfeld,” “LA Law,” “ER,” “Friends,” and “The Office.” These shows all made NBC the highest rated network ratings from the 1980s until the 2000s.
Joey Lawrence starred in “Blossom” and “Melissa and Joey” after his years on “Gimme a Break.” On all three shows, his character was named Joey. Many years later, he appeared in the famous male stripper group Chippendales. No word on whether his moniker was Joey as he shed his pull-away pants and shirt.
Green With Envy
When Joey’s character was adopted by the Kanisky family on “Gimme a Break!” Lara Jill Miller revealed the resentment her character feels towards him for being the new baby of the family didn’t take much acting. She said she was genuinely jealous of the attention Joey was getting on the set.
More Than A Feeling
When the show’s cast learned that Andy Gibb would be guest starring on “Gimme a Break,” Carter predicted that sparks would fly between him and co-star Kari Michaelsen. Michaelsen laughed off the remark. But sure enough, the two started dating after Gibb’s appearance on the show. Maybe Carter had unknown psychic powers.
The Age Of Aquarius
Before she starred in her own sitcom, Carter was part of the movie cast of “Hair,” based on the highly controversial Broadway play. She appeared in the “White Boys/ Black Boys” number with “Night Court’s” Ellen Foley. Charlotte Rae from “The Facts Of Life” was also part of the cast, as well as Treat Williams and Beverly D’Angelo.
The Dark Side
Carter admitted in several interviews that in addition to a binge eating disorder, she also had a serious cocaine addiction while on “Gimme a Break!” Liza Minnelli intervened at one point to help her kick the coke habit. Carter died in 2003, about 15 years after the show ended, from heart disease complicated by diabetes.
In the “Julie’s Rejection” episode, Sam mentions a friend named Steve Sadler who’s on the hockey team and gave her a hockey mask. In the “Katie Steals Julie’s Jock” installment, Steve Sadler’s character is a football player in Julie’s class that Julie and Katie butt heads over, but not the same character.