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Nipsey Russell, 80; Comedian Was a Witty Raconteur, Poet on Talk, Game and Variety Shows

October 04, 2005|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Nipsey Russell, a stand-up comedian who became a national television personality through his frequent appearances on variety, talk and game shows, has died. He was 80.

Russell died Sunday at New York's Lenox Hill Hospital, a hospital spokesman confirmed Monday. According to WCBS-TV in New York, Russell's manager, Joseph Rapp, said the comedian died of cancer.

A witty raconteur, Russell delighted audiences with his funny but topical poems. They prompted Ed McMahon to dub him "the poet laureate of television."

One of his typical four-line verses, for example, was:

The opposite of pro is con;

That fact is clearly seen;

If progress means move forward,

Then what does Congress mean?

"I've always had the ability to manipulate words and communicate ideas and thoughts," Russell told the Philadelphia Tribune in 1997, adding that he earned a degree in English at the University of Cincinnati and originally planned to teach English.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 06, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Russell obituary -- The obituary of entertainer Nipsey Russell in Tuesday's California section misspelled the last name of former "Tonight Show" host Jack Paar as Parr.

Writing poems, Russell told The Times in 1993, "is very simple to do.... I start with the joke line and write backward."

Russell made his breakthrough in the late 1950s with an appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and a series of erudite, entertaining chats with Jack Parr on "The Tonight Show." The appearances earned Russell a regular role in the 1961-63 television sitcom "Car 54, Where Are You?"

Russell became a popular guest on such variety shows as "The Jackie Gleason Show," "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" and "The Dean Martin Show." He often hosted "Dean Martin Roasts" television specials. Younger generations remember Russell best as a glib panelist on such game shows as "To Tell the Truth," "The Match Game," "Masquerade Party," "Missing Link," "Rhyme and Reason" and "Juvenile Jury."

In 1985, Russell became one of the first African American game show hosts with NBC's "Your Number's Up."

"Russell is glib, articulate, brimming with energy and blessed with the ability to improvise and ad-lib with the best of them," said United Press International Hollywood reporter Vernon Scott when the show began.

Russell, who told The Times in 1993 that he was "the very first and the only" black regular on game shows, said he broke into the genre when he entertained at a party for producer Mark Goodson. Impressed with his cleverness, the Goodson group tested him as a game show participant.

"I was so good at that," Russell told The Times, "they put me on a game show they had called 'To Tell the Truth,' and I became a regular panelist for three or four years."

Although Russell appeared in few motion pictures, he did make a memorable Tin Man in the 1978 film version of the all-black musical "The Wiz."

"Russell is a welcome sight and comes as near as anyone can to walking off with the movie," former Times Arts Editor Charles Champlin wrote in 1978. "His razzmatazz song, 'Slide Some Oil to Me,' is the first real stopper, an up-tempo delight."

As adept at singing and dancing as talking, Russell appeared in Broadway musicals including "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and "Hello Dolly!"

Born in Atlanta on Oct. 13, 1924, he tap danced with the Ragamuffins of Rhythm, which helped prepare him for his later stints in musicals. He also worked as a carhop at Atlanta's famed Varsity Drive-In, making customers laugh to generate bigger tips. That experience helped him hone a nightclub act in New York in the 1950s at the Club Baby Grand.

He also performed at Harlem's Apollo Theater, and to extend the reach of his stand-up routines, recorded several successful "party albums."

In 1993, Russell was featured in the HBO documentary "Mo' Funny: Black Comedy in America" and appeared frequently on the Comedy Central cable television channel.

Information on survivors and services was not immediately available.

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