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Lisa Nicole Carson
- Lisa Nicole Carson
- Brooklyn NY
- United States
- Best Chest In Hollywood
- Bit Roles
For viewers of the hit Fox TV comedy Ally McBeal, Lisa Nicole Carson serves to act out their at-home disbelief at the flaky title character and her emotional excesses through the tart rejoinders and raised eyebrows of Ally's best friend Renee. Like her on-screen cohorts, Carson was a virtual unknown when she was cast in the legal-themed show that became an immediate hit in its debut 1997-98 season. The veteran of a few well-received feature films, Carson had already experienced success in a recurring role on another show, the hospital drama ER, but it was the bite with which she imbued Renee that caused Ally producers to expand her character during the show's second season.
Carson was born the third child in a family of four in Brooklyn, New York. In junior high, she moved with her family to the Florida city of Gainesville when her father, a professor of journalism, took a job at the University of Florida campus there. In Gainesville, they were the first African-American family on their block, and a few of the white kids in Carson's new neighborhood called her hateful names to her face for the first time in her life. "It was pretty shocking," the actress told David Handleman in Cosmopolitan. "But it was also wonderful because I had to learn about a different race of people, and I was never really the type to just sit in the back. I became the only black girl doing a lot of things, like being a cheerleader or in the theater program."
Carson's mother is a kindergarten teacher, and instilled in her four children an appreciation for art and aesthetics. As a child Carson loved to sing, and often neglected household chores when she became too distracted by song. Her first role was in a school production of Fiddler on the Roof, and her mother recalled in an interview with People that her daughter threw herself wholeheartedly into the role, even at the age of just eight. "She wanted to know everything about Jewish culture," Fannie Carson told the magazine. "She was fierce."
Carson's parents divorced when she was 14, and her mother left Florida and moved back to New York City. Despite the breach, the family as an emotional unit remained relatively intact, and it was not much of a trauma, as Carson recalled in People. "It wasn't that painful for me. I figured it was their business," she said. After high school, Carson went to community college in Gainesville for a year, but dropped out when she was disappointed by the theater curriculum. Her father urged her to apply to nursing schools, but instead she went back to New York and moved in with her mother in Harlem. After so many years in Florida, Carson found re-entering urban culture a shock. "I couldn't believe that so many black people were so poor," Carson told Handleman. "It made me realize I'd been living in a bubble."
In New York, Carson began looking for theater work. She did not take acting lessons, but instead watched films of performers she admired, such as Marlon Brando, Cicely Tyson, and Diana Ross, among others. She also scoured the classified sections of show-business newspapers for open casting calls, and sometimes even changed clothes between auditions on the subway. In 1990, she won roles in off-Broadway productions and did some summer stock, which led to work in productions of the acclaimed Negro Ensemble Company. She also landed a performing spot at the Apollo Comedy Hour, which helped her win a guest role on Law & Order. Her next television job was another one-time appearance--but on the very last episode of the Cosby Show that aired in 1992. She was frustrated when the few lines she had been given were cut at the last minute.
In 1994 Carson appeared in Girlfriend, an ABC Afterschool Special, and her first feature film, Let's Get Bizzee. A part in the 1994 film Jason's Lyric followed, but it was not until 1995 that two acting opportunities greatly furthered her career. In the film Devil in a Blue Dress, she appeared opposite Denzel Washington, and in a TV pilot called Divas, Carson played Jewel, an aspiring R&B singer in a Diana-Ross-and-the-Supremes-type tale. The latter was a plum role for a multitalented performer like Carson, for she had to sing, dance, and act--unusually diverse requirements for television actresses--but the show failed to attract viewers or network support. "I was devastated when it failed," Carson told Handleman.
Still living in New York, Carson sang for a time in an all-female rock band called Mascara and looked for more film roles. Her agent urged her to explore television further, but she felt leery after the Divas experience. She said, jokingly, she would only consider the small screen if it was a role on Chicago Hope or ER, though she had never seen the highly-rated, hourlong hospital dramas that were critical hits; she only knew the buzz surrounding them. In 1996, her agent called her bluff when she auditioned for and won a recurring role on ER as Carla Reese, a restaurateur and companion of the physician played by Eriq LaSalle; they have a child together, and Carson's character is decidedly uninterested in marriage to Dr. Peter Benton. "I get a lot of women telling me 'You go, girl!' They really like me to give Peter a hard time," Carson said in the Cosmopolitan interview.
In 1997, Carson was offered another solid, career-making role from the producer responsible for Picket Fences. The creator of Ally McBeal, David E. Kelley, had seen Carson in Divas, and cast her as Renee Radick, the roommate and best friend of the pilot's flaky title character. Whereas Ally rides a rollercoaster of emotion and insecurity, Carson's Renee is grounded and common-sensical. Though it had not been written specifically for an African-American woman, Kelley decided Carson fit the role perfectly. The show debuted in the fall of 1997 and was an immediate, though sometimes controversial success.
For Carson, fame arrived virtually overnight when major press attention was lavished on Ally, its cast, set, and unusual mixture of comedy and drama. The show became the most talked-about television debut of the 1997-98 season, but viewers and critics were equally divided--it seemed to inspire either devoted appreciation or disgust. Together, coupled with solid ratings, such extremes are usually viewed as hallmarks of a very successful creation. "People come up to me all the time and tell me they love how different the show is," Carson told People, and in the Cosmopolitan interview, confessed that Flockhart's much-maligned loony on-screen persona was much closer to Carson's own personality. "I find Ally charming," she told Handleman. "I have a lot of Ally McBeal in me, so maybe that's why I can sympathize."
Like Ally, Carson's Renee is also a lawyer, but a district attorney who spars in court with the partners and associates of the private practice where Ally works; she also participates in many of the same off-hours activities as her on-screen roommate. Jet described her character with terms like "strong-willed.... ultraconfident," and "cool, sexy and level-headed." After the show's first season of high ratings and serious media attention, there was wild speculation that Flockhart was suffering from anorexia, while Carson was praised for being one of the few women on prime-time television who is both curvaceous and a femme fatale.
Boston Globe writer Gail Caldwell wrote that she greatly disliked Ally McBeal during its first season, but came to be addicted in part because of "Renee Too-Bad," as she termed Carson's character. Caldwell faulted Kelley, the show's creator and head writer, for the cliched femininity as presented on Ally. "The huge exception to Kelley's faltering stereotypes is the character of Renee," Caldwell wrote, a woman "cool enough to tell a dirty joke at the neighborhood bar and bring down the house. Delightfully carried off by Carson, Renee plays devil to Ally's namby-pamby angel. She's got a mouth on her the size of Dallas; she laughs out loud in court; and so far no man has dared to cross her. She's fabulously good-looking. Is it any surprise she's single?"