Julius “Nipsey” Russell (September 15, 1925 – 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 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. Russell was also a frequent guest on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts.
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 New York in 1949, Nipsey Russell became part of the TV series The Show Goes On. He earned the sobriquet “Harlem’s Son of Fun” from his long-running gig as a stand-up comedian at the Club Baby Grand in Harlem, where he performed for over seven years. Record albums were made of his stand-up routines, further burnishing his name in show business.
Russell was chosen by the popular African American comedian Mantan Moreland (often derided by black activists of the 1960s for catering to racist stereotypes, like Amos ‘n’ Andy or Stepin’ Fetchit) to serve as his straight man, which also helped introduce Nipsey to a broader audience. The two performed frequently at New York’s famed Apollo Theatre in Harlem, the premier showcase of the African American “chitlin’ circuit.”
Mantan Moreland had been a fixture of “race” films, movies made for an African American audience and shown in segregated theaters catering to a black audience. With Moreland, Russell appeared in two 1955 movies consisting of African America routines filmed at the Apollo: Rhythm and Blues Revue (originally filmed in 1954) and Rock ‘n’ Roll Revue. They also appeared in a sequel, Basin Street Revue in 1956.
Nipsey Russell’s stage persona was “dapper” and more sophisticated than the earlier African American comedians whose acts were still rooted in minstrelsy.
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 preformed 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. 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 1879, and with Franchi in 1979 at the Sands Hotel Copa Room.
Russell became the first black performer to become a regular panelist on a weekly network game show when he joined ABC’s Missing Links in 1964. Another ABC show, Rhyme and Reason, had poetry for a premise, making Russell’s participation a necessity:
- 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 as they went up the hill…
- Russell: We’re not going for water — I hope you’re on 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 on the 1968 revival of What’s My Line? Producer Bob Stewart featured him regularly as a panelist on Pyramid throughout its 1970s and 1980s runs. Russell would also host the short-lived 1985 game show Your Number’s Up as well as the early-’80s revival of Juvenile Jury.
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 1980s episodes of The $25,000 Pyramid and The $100,000 Pyramid and even one from the 2004 Hollywood Squares are typical of his style and wit:
- The girl who would make my life complete
- need not be young and fair;
- Just be a nymphomaniac
- and a multimillionaire.
(To which Betty White replied, “I’m not a multimillionaire but one out of two ain’t bad.”)
- 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!
- I got a new girlfriend,
- No guy could ask for more,
- She’s deaf, dumb, oversexed
- And owns a liquor store!
- 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.
- The opposite of ‘pro’ is ‘con’
- This fact is clearly seen
- But if ‘progress’ means move forward
- What does ‘Congress’ mean?
- Hurricanes are named after women
- Because they start on the very same plan
- Start up over nothin’, make a whole lotta noise,
- And can’t be controlled by man!
- Washington threw a silver dollar
- Across the Potomac one day
- Since then politicians in Washington
- Have been throwing our money away.
- I am a bachelor, and I will not marry
- Until the right girl comes along
- But while I’m waiting, I don’t mind dating
- Girls that I know are wrong.
- Pyramid is the best show on TV.
- Dick Clark is surely the best emcee.
- They won the Emmy, they pay a high fee
- How ’bout a few bucks for the audience and me?
- Show business should really change its style from the vulgar and the crude.
- People on stage should be properly dressed. The audience should be nude.
- More people are killed on the roads than they are on the battlefield.
- It’s not the tiger in the tank, it’s the jackass behind the wheel.
When Russell appeared on Family Feud during a special game show emcee week, he had two poems to give:
- Playing Family Feud today
- Are some talented women and men;
- Lost their jobs giving money away,
- So now, they’re trying to win!
- Each day we turn another page.
- You know you’re reaching middle age
- When your pimples and your rashes
- Turn to wrinkles and hot flashes.
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.
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 for one week (specifically, a game show-themed week) on the final season of the Tom Bergeron version of Hollywood Squares.
He died in 2005 in New York City, after suffering from stomach cancer. He was cremated and ashes were scattered into the Atlantic Ocean.
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