Born Julius Russell, October 13, 1924, in Atlanta, GA; died of cancer, October 2, 2005, in New York, NY. Comedian and actor. With a supernatural ability to improvise and ad-lib, Nipsey Russell made a name for himself on the talk show and game-show circuits of the 1950s and ’60s. He was known most notably for his impromptu four-line rhymes, which entertained the masses and helped him become one of the first black comedians to earn a rapport with mainstream audiences. Russell’s immense popularity helped him remain a television staple through the 1980s.
Though he was known as Nipsey Russell, the comedian was named Julius Russell upon his birth in 1924 in Atlanta. His mother nicknamed him Nipsey because she liked the way it sounded. As a youngster, Russell entertained audiences by singing and tap-dancing with a troupe called the Ragamuffins of Rhythm. As a teenager, Russell worked as a carhop at Atlanta’s legendary Varsity Drive-In, where he did much more than deliver hot dogs and orange drinks. Russell handed out jokes with each order, entertaining customers and earning extra tips. Russell left Atlanta during his senior year of high school and moved in with an aunt in Cincinnati to earn tuition-free eligibility for the University of Cincinnati. His university studies, however, were interrupted by service in the army. Stationed in Europe, Russell attained the rank of captain before leaving the military.
After returning to the United States, Russell hit the road and perfected his standup routine playing the black clubs of the Midwest and East Coast. By the 1950s, Russell was appearing at Harlem’s Club Baby Grand, where he stayed a regular for seven years. Donning a conservative suit and tie and refusing to tell crude jokes or use dialects, Russell stood apart from the lewd, baggy-pants-wearing black comics of his day. In comparison, Russell’s act was classy. He came across as a folk philosopher, delivering his jokes as aphorisms and rhymes. Russell also became a favorite at Harlem’s Apollo Theater and earned the nickname “Harlem’s Son of Fun.” He also appeared at popular resorts in the Catskills. During this time, Russell compiled his routines on a number of “party albums.”
News of the comedic whiz kid spread and by the late 1950s, the television talk shows were trying Russell out. He scored with a standout performance on The Ed Sullivan Show and made several appearances on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar. Russell’s quick-witted banter with Paar proved he could hold his own as a guest and he earned countless appearances on the variety shows of the day. Television executives took notice and offered Russell a regular role on Car 54, Where Are You? Playing Officer Anderson on the NBC comedy series, which ran from 1961 to 1963, Russell was one of the first African Americans to have a co-starring role on a sitcom.
Russell soon broke into game shows and by the mid-1960s was a frequent guest on ABC’s Missing Links, hosted by Ed McMahon. He spent the 1970s as a regular panelist on CBS’s, To Tell the Truth, a show where celebrity panelists were presented with a story, followed by several contestants who each claimed the story was their own. The panelists questioned the contestants in an effort to figure out which contestant went with the story. Audiences loved Russell so much that he became a regular panelist on the show for several years. During the 1960s and ’70s, Russell was a well-liked guest on The Jackie Gleason Show, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, and The Dean Martin Show.
Over the years, Russell became known for his signature four-line poems, which grew out of an early 1960s appearance on Missing Links. During this appearance, as the show was ending, McMahon turned to Russell and asked him if he knew any poems. Surprisingly, Russell came up with a clever one quite quickly, which amused the audience. Afterward, no appearance was complete until Russell delivered a few lines of verse. He even spouted them during his game-show appearances.
Over the course of his career, Russell memorized more than 600 poems so he would have an appropriate one ready for any situation. He wrote them late at night. According to the Los Angeles Times, Russell once told a reporter that writing poems “is very simple to do…. I start with the joke line and write backward.” Russell’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times quoted one of his signature four-liners: “The opposite of pro is con/That fact is clearly seen/If progress means to move forward/Then what does Congress mean?” Because of his catchy rhymes, Russell became known as “the poet laureate of television.”
For Russell, the 1970s and ’80s provided a steady stream of work as a game show panelist. He appeared on The Match Game, Rhyme and Reason, Juvenile Jury, Masquerade Party, and $10,000 Pyramid. For a time, in 1985, he hosted Your Number’s Up, becoming one of the first African Americans to host a game show. Russell also made a few motion pictures, including Nemo in 1984. He played a high school principal in 1986’s Wildcats, starred in the 1993 Western Posse, and played a precinct commander in the 1994 motion picture reprise of Car 54, Where Are You?
His most notable film role was that of the Tin Man in the 1978 movie version of the black-cast musical The Wiz, where he appeared alongside Diana Ross, Richard Pryor, and Michael Jackson. Russell also took his singing and dancing to Broadway, appearing in the musicals A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Hello Dolly!
Even as he grew older, Russell continued entertaining. In the 1990s, he gave live performances in Atlantic City and Las Vegas and appeared on The Chris Rock Show. He even reprised his panelist persona for several 2003 appearances on Hollywood Squares. Russell died of cancer on October 2, 2005, in Manhattan. He was 80. Russell never married and left no known survivors.