Julius "Nipsey" Russell was an American comedian and actor. He was most famous for his appearances as a guest panellist on game shows from the 1960s through the 1990s. Some of the shows he was featured on were ‘Match Game’, ‘Password’, ‘Hollywood Squares’, ‘To Tell the Truth’ and ‘Pyramid’. A native of Georgia, he served in the US Army as a medic during the World War II. After he came home from the war, he began working as a carhop at the Atlanta drive-in The Varsity. He would often earn extra money by making the customers laugh. In the 1950s, he began his career in the entertainment business by working in the nightclubs. His first significant collaboration came about in 1952 when he got together with Mantan Moreland for a stage act. He got more exposure after his appearance on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’. In 1964, Russell was featured in ABC's ‘Missing Links’, which effectively made him the first black performer to become a regular panellist on a daily network game show. His performances were often accompanied by Russell reciting his own poetry. His colleagues in the industry, such as Dick Clark, Bill Cullen, and Betty White, dubbed him "the poet laureate of television”. He had also been called “The Poet Laureate of Comedy” and “Harlem's Son of Fun”.
Childhood & Early Life
Russell was born in Atlanta, Georgia, allegedly on September 15, 1918. As his birth certificate had gone missing, the precise date of his of his birth is not known. After his death in 2005, many of his lifelong friends claimed that he was 80 years old. He got the nickname “Nipsey” when he was a child as his mother “loved the way Nipsey sounded”.
He performed for the first time when he was still a toddler and by the time he turned three, he was already part of a children's dance team called ‘The Ragamuffins of Rhythm’. Within the next three years, he had become part of a local Atlanta children's troupe run by the jazz musician Eddie Heywood Sr. as its singing and dancing master of ceremonies.
He was also a voracious reader and a precocious scholar with a deep interest in literature. He had already read the works by the likes of Chaucer, Shelley, and Keats by the time he turned ten and was reading Homer at the time. He studied at Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta before enrolling at the University of Cincinnati in 1936. However, after one semester, the Second World War broke out.
Russell enlisted in the US Army on June 27, 1941, as a medic. He served for four years and by the time he returned to the US in 1945, he had been made a second lieutenant. Russell decided to go back to college and finish his education. He subsequently returned to the University of Cincinnati to pursue a degree in classical literature, graduating in 1946.
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Nipsey Russell’s first civilian job was as a carhop at the Atlanta drive-in The Varsity. He earned extra money by offering customers comedic entertainment. By the early 1950s, he had made a name for himself as a promising comedian in Atlanta’s club scene.
At the beginning of his career, Russell had to confront and overcome the usual issues that plagued a non-Caucasian entertainer in the 1940s and 1950s America, including a deeply segregated society. He was predominantly appearing in black comedy clubs on the East Coast, in the Midwest and in Canada. However, in time, his popularity increased exponentially and he started performing at the top Catskills resorts as well as at the Apollo in Harlem.
In 1952, he began his collaboration with the film comedian Mantan Moreland for a stage act, replacing Moreland’s previous partner, Ben Carter. The modern audience can enjoy their act as part of two all-black-cast compilation films, ‘Rhythm and Blues Review’ and ‘Rock and Roll Revue’.
It was in the late 1950s that Russell joined the Baby Grand, a Manhattan nightclub, for a seven-year tenure and almost single-handedly made it a success by attracting a large audience, primarily black, every night. His time at the club helped him refine his comedy which became more intelligent and more erudite, while still addressing a wide range of topics.
Following his appearance on a September 1957 episode of ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’, Russell landed multiple guest spots on ‘The Tonight Show’. He made his acting debut in 1961 in the NBC sitcom ‘Car 54, Where Are You?’ He would reprise his role of Police Officer Dave Anderson in the 1994 cinematic rendition of the show.
In 1965, he started co-hosting ABC's ‘Les Crane Show’. Russell appeared in the TV short ‘Walter of the Jungle’. From 1973 to 1976, he was featured regularly on the ‘The Dean Martin Show’ and ‘The Dean Martin Comedy World’. He debuted on the big screen in 1978 in the musical adventure ‘The Wiz’, portraying the character of Tinman. Russell had previously trained in dancing and made the full use of the skill in the film.
In 1964, he started working in his first game show, ABC’s ‘Missing Link’ and later appeared as a featured panellist in 'To Tell the Truth', 'The Match Game', 'What's My Line?', and 'Pyramid'. Russell hosted two game show pilots ‘Star Words’ in 1983 and a revival of ‘Jackpot’ in 1984 but neither was picked up by the network.
He served as the anchor of the two revivals of Jack Barry and Dan Enright's ‘Juvenile Jury’. The first one was for BET which ran from 1983 to 1984 and the second one was for syndication. It aired between 1989 and 1991.
Russell soon came to distinguish himself for reciting his own poetry during his appearances on TV. His last acting role was in 2001 in the legal drama TV series ‘100 Centre Street’.
Family & Personal Life
Nipsey Russell was a lifelong bachelor and didn’t have any children either. He had once remarked, "I have enough trouble living with myself, how could I ever live with anyone else?" In his later years, Russell garnered popularity with the new generation because of his regular appearances on NBC’s ‘Late Night with Conan O'Brien’. He would come out during comedy sketches with scheduled guests and recite his characteristic poetry.
In 2004, he appeared on TV for the last time when he was featured in ‘Hollywood Squares’, which was at the time hosted by Tom Bergeron.
On October 2, 2005, Russell passed away at the age of 87, in New York City, after a long battle against stomach cancer. As per his wishes, he was cremated and the ashes were dispersed in the Atlantic Ocean.