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Rhyming Funnyman Nipsey Russell Dies

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 4, 2005

Nipsey Russell, an actor and comedian whose impromptu versifying was familiar in years past to TV game show and late-night talk show audiences, died Oct. 2 of cancer at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

Mr. Russell didn't have a birth certificate, so his age couldn't officially be confirmed, said Joseph Rapp, Mr. Russell's manager for nearly 40 years. He was either 81 or 82 and had lived for many years in New York City.

Often called "the poet laureate of comedy," Mr. Russell may be best known today as one of the polyester-wearing guests on TV quiz show reruns, cracking wise and rhyming couplets in the company of such B-list celebrities as Paul Lynde, Fanny Flagg and Charles Nelson Reilly. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he was a frequent guest on "To Tell the Truth," "Match Game 73," "Masquerade Party," "What's My Line?" and "Hollywood Squares." He hosted a daytime game show called "Your Number's Up."

In addition to his numerous TV appearances, he was the Tin Man in "The Wiz," the 1978 black-cast remake of "The Wizard of Oz." It was a role that allowed him to showcase his versatility as a singer, dancer, actor and comedian. He had a role in John Boorman's fantasy film, "Dream One" (1984), and in a Mario Van Peebles western, "Posse" (1993), where his one memorable line, played for laughs, echoed the Rodney King lament, "Can't we all get along?"

He was the high school principal in "Wildcats" (1986), a comedy starring Goldie Hawn as a football coach at an inner-city high school, and played a precinct commander in the movie version of "Car 54, Where are You?" (1994).

Mr. Russell's way with a rhyme grew out of an appearance with longtime "Tonight Show" sidekick Ed McMahon on the TV show "Missing Links" in 1964. Closing the show, McMahon turned to the comedian and co-host and asked whether he had a poem. Suddenly he did, spontaneously, and from then on he was expected to have verse at the ready, whatever the occasion. He had more than 600 poems committed to memory, Rapp said. He composed them late at night.

The show business Nipsey Russell played against type, his manager and longtime friend said. According to Rapp, he was a lifelong student of classical literature and foreign languages. "He was always reading, always studying and was very, very quiet. He had a photographic memory."

Julius Russell -- his mother gave him the nickname "Nipsey" -- was born in Atlanta and at age 3 was part of a tap dance team called "The Ragamuffins of Rhythm." In a 1993 interview with the Los Angeles Times, he recalled being 9 or 10 years old and seeing a black performer named Jack Wiggins who inspired him.

"He came out immaculately attired in a well-dressed street suit and he tap-danced," Mr. Russell recalled. "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 later years Mr. Russell, along with Timmie Rogers and Redd Foxx, would be among the first African American comedians who refused to do dialects or play the Stepin Fetchit-style fool on stage.

As a teenager, he worked as a carhop at an Atlanta drive-in hangout called The Varsity, where he earned hefty tips by adding a side order of jokes and fun to the "nekkid dogs," Vidalia onions and orange drinks he carried out to customers.

After graduating from high school in Atlanta, he received a bachelor's degree in literature from the University of Cincinnati, expecting to be a teacher.

After service in the Army as a medic during World War II, he worked in Montreal for two years and made his way to New York City, where, in 1949, he joined "The Show Goes On," a TV series starring Robert Q. Lewis.

He also caught on as host, resident jester and folk philosopher at Harlem's Club Baby Grand. Known as "Harlem's Son of Fun," he worked more than seven years at the club, a record for a nightclub performer. He also made party albums that were compilations of his stand-up routines.

His multiple talents caught the eye of show business types in New York, and soon he was a frequent guest on "The Tonight Show," first with host Jack Parr and then with Johnny Carson. Throughout the 1960s, he popped up frequently on "The Jackie Gleason Show," "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" and "The Dean Martin Show."

During the 1961-62 TV season, he was Officer Anderson on the series "Car 54, Where Are You?" He was one of the first African Americans to have a co-starring role in a situation comedy. He also appeared on the soap operas "As the World Turns" and "Search for Tomorrow." In the 1970s, he became a regular on "The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts," where he was expected to offer humorous insults in rhyme.

In recent years, he made several appearances on NBC's "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" and on HBO's "Chris Rock Show." Comedy Central broadcast his one-man comedy special.

There are no immediate survivors.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company