Julius "Nipsey" Russell (September 15, 1918 – October 2, 2005) was an American comedian, poet, and dancer best known for his appearances as a panelist on game shows from the 1960s through the 1990s, including Match Game, Password, Hollywood Squares, To Tell the Truth, and Pyramid. His appearances were often distinguished by short, humorous poems he recited during the broadcast, which led to his nickname "the poet laureate of television". He had one of the leading roles in the film version of The Wiz as the Tin Man. He was a frequent guest on the Dean Martin Celebrity Roast series.
Russell in 1971
|Birth name||Julius Russell|
|Born||September 15, 1918|
Atlanta, Georgia, United States
|Died||October 2, 2005 (aged 87)|
New York City, New York, United States
|Medium||Stand-up comedy, television, film|
Julius Russell was born in Atlanta, Georgia. His birthdate and age are unclear; according to one report his birth certificate was lost. At the time of his 2005 death, friends said he was 80, and that was the age reported in his obituaries. That implies a birth year of 1924 or 1925; the New York Times obituary gave his birthdate as October 13, 1924. Federal records suggest that he was born in 1918. Census documents record a Julius Russell in Atlanta aged 1 year 2 months in 1920, consistent with a birthdate in late 1918. The Social Security Death Index lists his birth date as September 15, 1918.
He went to Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta and attended the University of Cincinnati for one semester in 1936. He served as a medic in the United States Army during World War II, enlisting as a private on June 27, 1941, and returning from Europe in 1945 as a second lieutenant.
He got his start as a comedian in the 1940s as a carhop at the Atlanta drive-in The Varsity, where he increased the tips he earned by making customers laugh. He was discovered after he began performing in nightclubs in the 1950s. He subsequently made many "party albums", which were essentially compilations of his stand-up routines.
In 1952, Russell joined with film comedian Mantan Moreland for a stage act, replacing Ben Carter as Moreland's dapper straight man. One of their bits was an old routine that Moreland and Carter had performed in vaudeville and in Charlie Chan films. In the "interruption routine" (or "incomplete sentences") Moreland would engage Russell in conversation, only to be interrupted by Russell, who in turn was interrupted by Moreland:
Moreland: Guess who I saw? I saw old—
Russell: Is he back again? I thought he was—
Moreland: He was, but he got out.
Russell: Is that so?
Moreland: Yeah, he was over—
Russell: Is that so?
Soon the entire conversation was conducted in incomplete sentences, with each man anticipating or contradicting the other. Their act can be seen in two all-black-cast compilation films, Rhythm and Blues Review and Rock and Roll Revue; another variation of the "interruption routine", performed by Tommy Davidson and Savion Glover, was featured in Spike Lee's 2000 film Bamboozled.
A September 1957 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show led to several guest spots with Jack Paar on The Tonight Show and in 1961 a supporting role as a New York policeman in the sitcom Car 54, Where Are You?. In 1965 he became a co-host of ABC's Les Crane Show. In 1970 he was a co-star on the ABC sitcom Barefoot in the Park. From 1973 through 1976 he appeared regularly on The Dean Martin Show and The Dean Martin Comedy World. Scattered appearances on television series followed, as well as occasional guest-host stints on The Tonight Show during the Johnny Carson era. Russell also appeared frequently in Las Vegas, including a series of appearances with Sergio Franchi at the Frontier Hotel in 1978 and 1979, and with Franchi in 1979 at the Sands Hotel Copa Room. He performed at Kutsher's Country Club in Monticello, NY on January 1, 1977.
Russell became the first black performer to become a regular panelist on a daily network game show when he joined ABC's Missing Links in 1964. Another ABC show, Rhyme and Reason, had poetry as a premise:
Host: Conny Van Dyke looks like a girl I once dated...
Russell: And now, all my dreams are strictly X-rated!
Host: Jack said to Jill when they came down the hill...
Russell: We didn't go there for water—I hope you take the pill!
In 1971 he started as a featured panelist on To Tell the Truth, which led to his being hired for The Match Game when Goodson-Todman Productions revived it two years later. He also served as panelist in 1968 on the syndicated version of What's My Line?. Producer Bob Stewart featured him regularly as a panelist on Pyramid throughout its 1970s and 1980s runs. Russell would host two game show pilots: one was Star Words for Mark Goodson in 1983 and a revival of Jackpot for Bob Stewart in 1984. These pilots were shot for CBS, but neither pilot was picked up by the network. Russell went on to host two revivals of Jack Barry and Dan Enright's Juvenile Jury for BET from 1983 to 1984, then again for syndication from 1989 to 1991. In 1985 he hosted the short-lived 1985 NBC game show Your Number's Up, which was produced by Sande Stewart.
During his appearances on game shows, at some point in the broadcast the host would give the floor to Russell, who would recite a self-penned poem from memory, looking straight into the camera. These poems from game show appearances are typical of his style and wit:
What is the secret of eternal youth?
The answer is easily told;
All you gotta do if you wanna look young
Is hang out with people who are old.
If you ever go out with a schoolteacher,
You're in for a sensational night;
She'll make you do it over and over again
Until you do it right.
The young people are very different today;
And there's one sure way to know;
Kids used to ask where they came from;
Now they'll tell you where you can go!
If a baby slept in a water bed,
It would be pretty grim;
You wouldn't know if he was wetting the bed,
Or the bed was wetting him.
Spanking a child to get him to learn
Is something I cannot defend,
How can you knock any sense in his head
When you're whacking him on the wrong end.
He was a trained dancer, influenced in his youth by Jack Wiggins. Russell put these talents to use in the 1978 musical The Wiz as the Tin Man. He also appeared on the big screen in 1994's adaptation of Car 54, Where Are You?, reprising his role as Anderson, now promoted from sergeant to captain.
Later career and deathEdit
During the 1990s Russell gained popularity with a new generation of television viewers as a regular on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. Russell often appeared during comedy sketches between scheduled guests and delivered his trademark rhymes.
Russell's final TV appearance was as a panelist on a game show–themed week on the final season of the Tom Bergeron version of Hollywood Squares in 2003.
- Nipsey J. Russell, born September 15, 1918, died October 2, 2005. Social Security Administration. Social Security Death Index (Death Master File).
- U.S. Census, January 1, 1920, state of Georgia, county of DeKalb, city of Atlanta, enumeration district 180, page 4-A, family 75, Julius Russell, age 1 year 2 months.
- "Nipsey Russell". Biography.com. Retrieved April 1, 2019.
- Grace, Francie (October 4, 2005). "Actor Nipsey Russell Dead At 80". CBS News. Retrieved April 1, 2019.
- Watkins, Mel (October 4, 2005). "Nipsey Russell, a Comic With a Gift for Verse, Dies at 80". The New York Times. Retrieved April 1, 2019.
- Gail Fredensborg, Associate Registrar, University of Cincinnati, January 9, 2006.
- National Archives and Records Administration. U.S. World War II Army Enlistment Records, 1938-1946 [database online]. Provo, Utah: MyFamily.com, Inc., 2005.
- Passenger list of the S.S. General Harry Taylor, Port of New York, September 13, 1945, p. 233.
- Entertainment in Las Vegas. (September 1, 1978). Seattle Daily Times, Seattle, WA
- Entertainment in Las Vegas. (January 14, 1979). Seattle Daily Times, Seattle, WA
- Entertainment in Las Vegas. (May 18, 1979). Seattle Daily Times, Seattle, WA
- Entertainment in Las Vegas. (February 15, 1979). Seattle Daily Times, Seattle, WA
- Eakin, Marah; Teti, John; Adams, Erik (June 16, 2014). "Bonus round stars: 9 celebrities who found their greatest fame on game shows". The A.V. Club. Retrieved June 20, 2014.
|Wikiquote has quotations related to: Nipsey Russell|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Nipsey Russell.|
- Nipsey Russell on IMDb
- "Nipsey Russell Dies at 82" [sic], WCBS TV, October 3, 2005
- "Rhyming Funnyman Nipsey Russell Dies", The Washington Post, October 4, 2005
- "Nipsey Russell, a Comic With a Gift for Verse, Dies at 80" [sic], New York Times, October 4, 2005
- "A Tribute to Comedian Nipsey Russell", audio clip from NPR's All Things Considered, October 4, 2005
- Nipsey Russell at Find a Grave