Gimme a Break! is an American sitcom which aired on NBC from October 29, 1981, until May 12, 1987. The series stars Nell Carter as the housekeeper for a widowed police chief (Dolph Sweet) and his three daughters.


The sitcom took place in the fictional Los Angeles, California, suburb of Glenlawn. Nellie Ruth "Nell" Harper (Nell Carter) agrees to be a housekeeper for the Kanisky household as a special favor to her late friend, Margaret Kanisky (née Huffmann) (played in flashback by Sharon Spelman), who was the wife of police chief Carl Kanisky (Dolph Sweet). Nell also served as a confidante to the chief's three daughters, 17-year-old Katie (Kari Michaelsen), 15-year-old Julie (Lauri Hendler), and 13-year-old Samantha (Lara Jill Miller). A foster son, Joey (Joey Lawrence) was added in season 3.

Over the six-year run, a number of celebrities appeared on the show, including singer Whitney Houston, Andy Gibb, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Ray Parker, Jr.. In some of these episodes, the guest would eventually perform a song with Nell. During the third season, Pat Sajak guest-starred as himself when Nell and Addy were contestants on Wheel of Fortune.

Two episodes were particularly noteworthy. The episode "Cat Story" was performed and broadcast live on March 2, 1985, as a promotional gimmick, which the cast was able to pull off without a hitch. Another episode that aired earlier in the 1984–85 season, "Baby of the Family", ranked No. 38 on TV Land's list of "The 100 Most Unexpected TV Moments"; the latter episode depicted Joey dressing and performing in blackface at Nell's church benefit at Sam's behest after Nell did not allow Sam to go on an unchaperoned fishing trip.[1]


Main charactersEdit

  • Nell Carter as Nellie Ruth "Nell" Harper. Nell was a singer who ran away from home in Alabama when she was 18. She met Margaret Kanisky and promised to look after her family after she had died from cancer. Nell had role of housekeeper/surrogate mother and she remained in the series for the entire six-year run. She became a foster mother to Joey Donovan in season 3. Nell moved to Greenwich Village in New York in season 6 with Joey and Addy. In season 6, she worked as an assistant editor for a publishing company.
  • Dolph Sweet as Police Chief Carl "Chief" Kanisky (Seasons 1–4). Police Chief Carl Kanisky, known as "The Chief" was a widower. He had a tough and no-nonsense exterior. After Dolph Sweet's death on May 8, 1985, it was explained that the Chief had died and the show continued with Nell as head of the household.
  • Kari Michaelsen as Kathleen "Katie" Kanisky (Seasons 1–5). Oldest daughter of Chief Carl Kanisky. Despite the fact that her real name is Kathleen, as addressed by Nell, on just about every episode of the show while being referred, the only episode that she would be referred to as Katherine, by Julie, was a season two episode when she stole Julie's boyfriend. Katie was the typical "blonde" of the family. She decided not to go to college and opened a boutique called Katie's Korner. After her boutique went out of business, she got a job in San Francisco and left the series after season 5. Her last appearance was the first episode of season 6.
  • Lauri Hendler as Julie Kanisky Maxwell (Seasons 1–5). Middle daughter of Chief Carl Kanisky. Julie was the typical "brain" of the family. She married Jonathan Maxwell at the end of season 4 and became pregnant in season 5. After her baby girl Nell Maxwell was born in the first episode of season 6 she, the baby and Jonathan moved to San Jose and left the series.
  • Lara Jill Miller as Samantha "Sam" Kanisky (Seasons 1–5, recurring in season 6). The youngest daughter of Chief Carl Kanisky. She began as a typical tomboy and later developed into a boy-crazy teenager. She moved to New Jersey to go to college and had a recurring role in season 6.
  • Joey Lawrence as Joey Donovan (Seasons 3–6). Foster son to Nell and the Chief who originally was working as a con artist to raise money to go be with his uncle in Chicago. Later Joey became a key cast member. His father Tim Donovan appeared on the show in New Orleans and in New York. Joey met his little brother and moved in with Tim at the beginning of season 6 but soon afterwards was reunited and lived with Nell and Addy in New York.
  • Howard Morton as Officer Ralph Waldo Simpson (Seasons 3–5, previously recurring). A dopey but loveable police officer who worked with Carl.
  • John Hoyt as Stanley "Grandpa" Kanisky (Seasons 3–6, previously recurring). Carl's crusty but lovable Polish immigrant father. After his wife died, Grandpa Kanisky came to live with Carl and his family in season 3. Later in season 6, Grandpa Kanisky moved to New York in the same building as Nell.
  • Telma Hopkins as Adelaide "Addy" Wilson (Seasons 4–6, previously recurring). Nell's childhood friend, Ph.D. and a Phi Beta Kappa, Addy worked at a university and later moved to New York, soon after which, Nell followed.
  • Jonathan Silverman as Jonathan Maxwell (Season 5, previously recurring). Julie's husband, pizza delivery man and archeology student. Jonathan went to Mexico on a dig for three months. After season 5, Jonathan, Julie and their baby left for San Jose.
  • Rosetta LeNoire as Maybelle "Mama Maybelle" Harper (Season 6, previously recurring). Played by Hilda Haynes in 1982 and 1983, whose character was soft spoken and whose name was Emma. LeNoire's character was stern, bitter and criticizing of Nell.
  • Paul Sand as Marty (Season 6). The landlord of the building Nell, Addy, Joey and Matthew lived and owner of the adjacent restaurant "La Gaspacho".
  • Rosie O'Donnell as Maggie O'Brien (Season 6). Dental hygenist and Nell's neighbor in New York.
  • Matthew Lawrence as Matthew Donovan (Season 6). Joey's little brother.

Recurring charactersEdit

  • Alvernette Jimenez as Angie MacDowell. Nell's tall, skinny, and sexy friend, the typical airhead. Angie's character was eventually written out of the show, but appeared in several episodes between seasons 1 and 4.
  • Jane Dulo as Mildred Kanisky (née Wuchetzky). Stanley Kanisky's wife, Carl's mother. Also played by Elvia Allman in "Katie the Cheat" and Elizabeth Kerr in one episode "Grandma Fools Around". Jane Dulo played the role in season 2. Her character died leaving Stanley a widower in season 3.
  • Pete Schrum as Ed Kanisky. Carl's brother, an overweight mortician who loved to play practical jokes. Ed was recurring in seasons 1 and 2 and got married and was written out of the series.
  • Patrick Collins as Tim Donovan. Joey and Matthew's father who was a merchant seaman. Joey reunited with Tim in New Orleans in season 4 (when Tim was played by Fred McCarren). Joey went to live with Tim and Matthew in the beginning of season 6 when Tim decided to get a job in New York. After realizing he was not able to handle a 9 to 5 job, Tim decided he wanted to go back to sea and Joey went back to live with Nell and Addy along with Matthew.
  • Jack Fletcher as Erwin J. Swackhammer. During the 1982–83 season, the family contended with a man who would often annoy the Kanisky household. Swackhammer was at first the assistant manager of the local phone company in Glenlawn, who angered Nell and called her by the wrong surname, not to mention turned off phone service to the Kanisky household, and had Nell arrested and thrown in jail. However, the phone company snafu was eventually fixed up, and the arrogant Swackhammer was demoted. Other episodes had him as a neighbor, who always complained about noise, and he was often referred to as "that jerk, Swackhammer!"; however, after five episodes, Swackhammer disappeared with no explanation whatsoever. The J could presumably stand for Jackhammer.


Main article: List of Gimme a Break! episodes

Production informationEdit

The show was produced by Alan Landsburg Productions, whose successor-in-interest, Reeves Entertainment Group, took over production in 1985. The American syndication rights are held by NBC Universal Television Distribution, the successor company to original syndication MCA Television. FremantleMedia owns the international rights, as they own Thames Television, which acquired Alan Landsburg Productions and Reeves Entertainment Group product in 1990. The creators of the show were Mort Lachman and Sy Rosen.

Carter performed the lyrics in both versions of the theme song. The original version was used for the first two seasons and was replaced with an up-tempo rearrangement with new lyrics for season three onward.

Broadcast historyEdit

Later developmentsEdit

Nell Carter had a stormy relationship with Gimme a Break!'s original producers Coleman Mitchell and Geoffrey Neigher, which involved personality conflicts and creative differences.[citation needed] The uneasy interaction heightened as the show's success grew heavily in the early seasons, so much that Mitchell and Neigher were dismissed from the show at the behest of Carter just prior to the start of the 1983–84 season. Mort Lachman, the show's co-creator, was retained as co-producer (he would serve in this role for all six seasons). NBC then hired the veteran team of Rod Parker and Hal Cooper to take over as executive producers, following their stint at the recently canceled Love, Sidney. Carter found that she saw eye to eye more often with Parker and Cooper on all levels, and due to the stability the latter team would stay with the program for the rest of its run.

During the summer 1984 hiatus, Dolph Sweet underwent stomach surgery, which was revealed shortly after to be the first extensive treatment for cancer. Over the course of the 1984–85 season, Sweet's health went into serious decline as the cancer further ravaged his body. Producers found it increasingly difficult to keep him on-screen due to his condition and gaunt appearance, but Sweet insisted on working as much as possible in order to help him cope with his illness. Sweet died on May 8, 1985, after taping had completed on season four. To open the next season, the crew wrote out the character of Carl Kanisky and built the season premiere ("Joey's Train") around the family's coming to terms with the loss and their indecision over facing the one place that evoked the most memories of Carl – his empty bedroom.

As the fifth season saw the death of the chief, Nell became the head of the household. Officer Simpson, who remained a friend of the family after the death of his superior, stuck around for another season. Julie and Jonathan, who were now living in the Chief's old room, found out they were expecting a baby; their daughter, whom they named after Nell, was born before season's end.

While never a powerhouse in the ratings, Gimme a Break! usually managed to land in the Top 40 during its first four seasons. However, because of Dolph Sweet's death, the ratings dropped during the fifth season. At this point, the producers were faced with a dilemma: either cancel the series or renew it for a sixth season with significant changes. At the start of the 1986–87 season, Katie moved to San Francisco; Julie, Jonathan, and baby Nell moved to San José; and Samantha attended college in New Jersey. However, she was still seen occasionally in the sixth season, visiting from school. Addy got a job in New York City, so Nell, Grandpa and Joey came to New York to join her. There, they discovered Joey's irresponsible father, Tim (guest star Patrick Collins), who showed him his brother, Matthew (played by Matthew Lawrence, Joey's real-life brother), and left them with Nell and Grandpa. Marty (Paul Sand) was their landlord who also owned a Mexican restaurant under the name "Esteban." Nell's Mama Maybelle (Rosetta LeNoire) began being seen in more recurring roles starting in season six after previous guest appearances. She had moved in with her other daughter and son-in-law, who also recently moved to New York and was a TV weatherman.

One of Nell and Addy's New York neighbors was a young lady named Maggie O'Brien, played by Rosie O'Donnell. O'Donnell later revealed how, at first, she was thrilled and excited at being cast on a major prime time television show, yet very quickly became disappointed and disheartened at feeling snubbed by most of the cast, who, for the most part, treated her more as an interloper than as a fellow actor.

There was also friction between O'Donnell and Carter herself, who did not befriend the younger comedienne and only addressed her during rehearsals as her character's name "Maggie", which according to O'Donnell, was not because Carter was into the Stanislavsky Method. In an interview Carter gave for O'Donnell's E! True Hollywood Story, she was adamant that frequently calling her "Maggie" was a tactic to help young Joey and Matthew Lawrence focus on their lines, rehearsals and shootings without acting up, as kids often do. Carter also said that she called other cast members by their character names for the same reason.

Despite these extensive changes, ratings continued to decline as NBC began to move the show around to various spots in its schedule (the show averaged out at #42 in the Nielsens for season six, which was actually 7 spots higher than in its third season, when NBC evidently gave the show more support). Gimme a Break was canceled in the spring of 1987.


The show has been in off-network syndication since 1985. Reruns have also aired nationally on WWOR EMI Service (September 30, 1991 to December 31, 1993) and the USA Network (September 22, 1997 to September 11, 1998).[2][3][4][5] More recently as of January 2018, it is now shown on Antenna TV.


DVD releasesEdit

United StatesEdit

Universal Studios Home Entertainment released a three-disc DVD of the complete first season of Gimme a Break! on February 14, 2006, available in the United States only. The Complete Series is now available in the US.


Visual Entertainment released the first two seasons of Gimme a Break!' on DVD in Canada between 2006-07. In 2009, VEI announced that they plan on releasing the entire series in a complete series box set in 2010.[6]

VEI released Gimme a Break! The Complete Series on DVD in Canada on July 20, 2010.[7]


  1. ^ PRNewswire, "TV Guide and TV Land Join Forces To Count Down The 100 Most Unexpected TV Moments", December 1, 2005.[1] Accessed March 23, 2009.
  2. ^ The Intelligencer—September 30, 1991
  3. ^ The Intelligencer—December 31, 1993
  4. ^ TV Guide—September 20–27, 1997
  5. ^ TV Guide—September 5–11, 1998
  6. ^ Lambert, David (2009-10-02). "Gimme a Break! - A Fan Inquiry to Us on Facebook Leads to Some VERY Interesting New Information!". Retrieved 5 December 2009.
  7. ^

External linksEdit