Best Known For
Nipsey Russell was best known for his comic rhymes and his appearances on TV game shows.
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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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