Julius "Nipsey" Russell (September 15, 1918 â" October 2, 2005) was an American comedian, best known today for his appearances as a guest panelist on game shows from the 1960s through the 1990s, especially Match Game, Password, Hollywood Squares, To Tell the Truth and Pyramid. His appearances were frequently distinguished in part by the short, humorous poems he would recite during the broadcast. These lyrics became so closely associated with Russell that Dick Clark, Bill Cullen, Betty White, and others regularly referred to him as "the poet laureate of television." He also had a leading role in the film version of The Wiz as the Tin Man. He was also a frequent guest on the long-running "Dean Martin Celebrity Roast" series.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Russell went to Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta and attended the University of Cincinnati for one semester in 1943. 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 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 the mid-1950s Russell joined forces with the popular movie 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 Ben 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 â"
- Russell: Is he back again? I thought he was â"
- Moreland: He was, but he got out.
- Russell: Is that so?
- Moreland: Yeah, he was over â"
- Russell: Is that so?
Soon the entire conversation was conducted in incomplete sentences, with each man anticipating or contradicting the other. Moreland and Russell's 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.
In the late 1950s, Russell appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, which led to a supporting part as a New York policeman in the sitcom Car 54, Where Are You? in 1961. In 1965 he became a co-host of ABC's Les Crane Show. During the 1970s, he was a co-star in the ABC sitcom Barefoot in the Park and 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.
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 for 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 â" 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 during from 1983 to 1984, then again for syndication from 1989 to 1991. In 1985, Russell 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!
He was a trained dancer, influenced in his youth by legendary performer 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, who had now been promoted from sergeant to captain.
Later career and death
During the 1990s Russell gained popularity with a new generation of television viewers as a regular on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. Russell would often appear during comedy sketches between scheduled guests and deliver 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.
He died in 2005 at the age of 87 in New York City, after suffering from stomach cancer. His ashes were buried in the Atlantic Ocean.
- Interview with Christine Jorgensen, 1957 on YouTube.
- CBS 2: Nipsey Russell Dies At 82 [sic]
- Rhyming Funnyman Nipsey Russell Dies - The Washington Post
- Nipsey Russell, a Comic With a Gift for Verse, Dies at 80 [sic] â" The New York Times
- A Tribute to Comedian Nipsey Russell â" audio clip from NPR's All Things Considered, October 4, 2005
- Nipsey Russell at Find a Grave