|Birth name||Julius Russell|
|Born||September 15, 1918|
Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.
|Died||October 2, 2005 (aged 87)|
New York City
|Medium||comedy, television, film|
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.
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 4 months in 1920, consistent with a birthdate in late 1918. The Social Security Death Index lists his birthdate 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, "Andy" Anderson, in the sitcom Car 54, Where Are You? Russell returned to the role in the feature-film version of Car 54, Where Are You? (filmed in 1990, released in 1994), with "Anderson" now serving as the precinct captain.
In 1965 Russell 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!
Host: Will sex still be great when I'm ninety-eight...
Russell: It might be, but I won't participate!
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.
George Washington threw a silver dollar
Across the Potomac one day,
And ever since then, politicians in Washington
Have been throwing our money away!
The opposite of pro is con.
That fact is clearly seen.
If progress means moving forward,
Then what does Congress mean?
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.
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.
Russell died in 2005 at age 87 in New York City, after suffering from cancer. He was cremated and his ashes scattered in the Atlantic Ocean.