Dolph Sweet was an actor of remarkable versatility who rose from prisoner of war status to become an internationally acclaimed star of stage and screen. Most famous for playing Carl Kanisky on Gimme a Break, Dolph also enjoyed an impressive career spanning theater, film, and television in which he took on different characters with tough yet authoritative temperaments. We will explore Dolph Sweet’s life and career here; from early years through his untimely death.
Early Years and Education
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Dolph Sweet was born Adolphus Jean Sweet on July 18, 1920 in New York City to an auto mechanic father and an aspiring soccer player mother. In 1939 he entered the University of Alabama but his studies were interrupted by World War II; as an Army Air Force navigator of B-24 bombers he was shot down over Romania during a raid, spending two years as a prisoner of war in Germany where other captives participated in short plays he performed alongside them, inspiring his interest in acting. For his bravery during captivity he received both awards: the Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart.
After World War II, he returned to the US and earned a master’s degree in English and comparative drama from Columbia University in 1949, while also playing semi-professional football and boxing during this time. Soon thereafter he became the head of Barnard College’s drama division where he taught for 12 years before finally retiring as professor emeritus of English & comparative drama at Barnard.
Broadway Debut and Film Roles
Dolph Sweet made his Broadway debut at age 40 in a 1961 production of Rhinoceros starring Zero Mostel, then continued performing on the Great White Way with notable roles in Romulus (1962), The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (1964 and 1972 revival), Streamers (1976) as well as appearing off-Broadway or regional theater productions like The Iceman Cometh, Crucible and Death of a Salesman.
Television Stardom and Final Years
Dolph Sweet enjoyed an esteemed career on television, appearing in over 60 shows including The Defenders, The Edge of Night, Another World, Dark Shadows, Little House on the Prairie, Mrs. Columbo and more. His regular roles included policeman in legal comedy-drama The Trials of O’Brien (1965-1966) and police chief Gil McGowan on Another World (1972-1977). Additionally he portrayed FBI director J. Edgar Hoover in King – an anthology miniseries depicting Martin Luther King Jr’s life – miniseries from 1978.
He reached his pinnacle of fame during the early 1980s when he starred as Carl Kanisky on Gimme a Break (1981-1987). Sweet was widely acclaimed for his comedic yet heartfelt performance as Carl, playing off Nell Carter as his housekeeper Nell Harper who took care of Carl’s four daughters; both audiences and critics took notice, with Sweet receiving praise for both comedic and emotional acting performances on Gimme a Break as well as movies such as Below the Belt (1980) and Reds (1981) during this period.
Unfortunately, Sweet’s career was cut short by cancer. Diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1984 and undergoing surgery and chemotherapy treatments, he continued working on Gimme a Break until his health worsened. On May 8, 1985 at 64 years old in Tarzana California – Nell Carter paid touching tribute to Sweet during the season premiere of season four – Sweet was survived by actress Iris Braun (married 1974), whom he married shortly thereafter; as well as their son Jonathan from his first marriage (to Reba Gillespie; divorced 1973).
Legacy and Influence
Dolph Sweet was a talented and versatile actor who left a lasting impression on the entertainment industry. He was admired by his peers and loved by his fans. He was known for his professionalism, generosity, and humor. He was also a dedicated educator and a decorated war hero. He had a remarkable journey from being a prisoner of war to a star of stage and screen. He is remembered for his role as the lovable police chief Carl Kanisky on Gimme a Break, but he also had a distinguished career in theater, film, and television, playing a variety of characters, often with a tough and authoritative demeanor. He was a true American original and a legend of the show business.
Dolph Sweet was a versatile and acclaimed actor who had a remarkable life and career. From being a prisoner of war to a professor of drama, from starring on Broadway to playing memorable roles in films and television, he showed his talent and charisma in every medium. He was best known for his role as Carl Kanisky on Gimme a Break, where he won the hearts of millions with his humor and warmth. He died of cancer in 1985, leaving behind a legacy of excellence and inspiration for generations of actors and fans.