Nipsey Russell was a comedian who appeared as a guest panelist on several game shows throughout the 1960s, '70s, '80s and '90s. Russell also played a leading role in the 1978 film The Wiz as the Tin Man. His comedic routines were landmark in that he refused to use stereotypical dialects or play stereotypical roles in his acts. His work as a comedian who defied stereotypes broke barriers for rising comedians of all backgrounds. He died on October 2, 2005.
Nipsey Russell was born as Julius Russell on what was believed to be October 13, 1924, in Atlanta, Georgia. Because his birth certificate has been lost, his precise birth date remains unknown, but upon his death in 2005 friends said that he was 80 years old. Russell received the nickname "Nipsey" as a baby—"My mother just liked the way the name Nipsey sounded," he explained. Russell began performing when he was only a toddler, and at the age of 3 he joined a children's dance team called "The Ragamuffins of Rhythm."
By the age of 6, he had become the singing and dancing master of ceremonies for a local Atlanta children's troupe run by the jazz musician Eddie Heywood, Sr. Russell traced his interest in comedy back to seeing a performance by the African-American performer Jack Wiggins around the age of 9. Russell recalled, "He came out immaculately attired in a well-dressed street suit and he tap-danced. As he danced, he told little jokes in between. He was so clean in his language and was lacking in any drawl, he just inspired me. I wanted to do that."
In addition to his knack for performing, the young Russell was also a precocious scholar with literary inclinations. By age 10, he was devouring the works of English poets such as Chaucer, Shelley and Keats as well as working through Homer's epics in the original Greek. He graduated early from high school at the age of 15, having spent his senior year living with an aunt in Cincinnati so that he could attend the University of Cincinnati tuition-free. However, Russell's studies were interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. He served a four-year enlistment in the Army and was commissioned as a captain in the field. Upon the conclusion of the war, he returned to the University of Cincinnati and graduated with a degree in classical literature in 1946.
After graduating from college, Russell decided to forgo academic pursuits to try his luck as a standup comedian. At the time Russell embarked on his show business career in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the United States remained deeply segregated, and he performed in exclusively black comedy clubs on the East Coast, in the Midwest and in Canada. However, by the late 1950s, Russell was booking shows at the top Catskills resorts as well as at the Apollo in Harlem.
Around the same time, he began a seven-year tenure—the longest in the club's history—at the Baby Grand, a Manhattan nightclub that, largely due to Russell's act, began to attract white crowds as well as black. It was at the Baby Grand that Russell refined his comedic style, an intelligent, often overtly erudite routine that dealt with a wide variety of subject matter. "I use mother-in-law jokes, kid jokes, tax jokes—anything that works," Russell explained. He defied the stereotypical roles associated with black performers by persistently refusing to use dialects or play a fool.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Russell capitalized on his success as a stage performer to become a fixture on television comedy shows. He appeared frequently on The Tonight Show, Missing Links, The Ed Sullivan Show, What's My Line and The Jackie Gleason Show. It was on Missing Links with Ed McMahon in 1964 that Russell first began incorporating into his routines the brief, rhymed poems that would become his trademark and earn him the title "The Poet Laureate of Television." A typical example of one of his humorous poems went: "Before we lose our autonomy/ And our economy crumbles into dust/ We should attack Japan, lose the war/ And let Japan take care of us."
In addition to his comedy routines, Russell also enjoyed a successful acting career. He landed his first major acting role as police officer in the sitcom Car 54, Where Are You? and went on to roles in Barefoot in the Park (1970) and The Red Skelton Hour (1967-1968). Russel's most acclaimed acting performance came as the Tin Man in The Wiz, an all-black remake of The Wizard of Oz costarring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Richard Pryor. While continuing to perform live shows in New York City and Las Vegas, in his later years Russell became a staple of daytime television with long-running roles on The $20,000 Pyramid, Password Plus and Hollywood Squares.
Nipsey Russell was never married and did not have any children. He often joked, "I have enough trouble living with myself, how could I ever live with anyone else?" Russell passed away in New York City on October 2, 2005 after a yearlong struggle with cancer.
With his beaming smile, intelligent wit and endless supply of clever rhymes, Nipsey Russell brought laughter to generations of club-goers and television-watchers, both black and white, while helping to break down the racial barriers that had long plagued the American entertainment industry. He was an entertainer who both reflected and helped bring about the increasingly multicultural makeup of American society. Extolling American diversity in characteristically humorous fashion, Russell once quipped, "America is the only place in the world where you can work in an Arab home in a Scandinavian neighborhood and find a Puerto Rican baby eating matzo balls with chopsticks."
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