Julius "Nipsey" Russell (September 15, 1918 – October 2, 2005) was an American comedian, best known today for his appearances as a guest panelist on game shows from the 1960s through the 1990s, especially Match Game, Password, Hollywood Squares, To Tell the Truth and Pyramid. His appearances were distinguished in part by the short, humorous poems he would recite during the broadcast. These lyrics became so closely associated with Russell that Dick Clark, Bill Cullen, Betty White, and others regularly referred to him as "the poet laureate of television." He also had a leading role in the film version of The Wiz. Russell was also a frequent guest on Dean Martin's Celebrity Roasts.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Russell 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 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 the mid-1950s Russell joined forces with the popular movie comedian Mantan Moreland for a stage act, replacing Ben Carter as Moreland's dapper straight man. 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. Moreland and Russell's act can be seen in two all-black-cast compilation films, Rhythm and Blues Review and Rock and Roll Revue; a variation of the act, performed by Tommy Davidson and Savion Glover, was featured in Spike Lee's 2000 film Bamboozled.
In the late 1950s, Russell appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, which led to a supporting part as a New York policeman in the sitcom Car 54, Where Are You? in 1960. In 1965 he became a co-host of ABC's Les Crane Show. During the 1970s, he was a co-star in the ABC sitcom Barefoot in the Park and 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 is the originator of the line: "Beauty is only skin deep — but ugly goes right to the bone!"
Russell became the first black performer to become a regular panelist on a weekly network game show when he joined ABC's Missing Links in 1964. Another ABC show, Rhyme and Reason, had poetry for a premise, making Russell's participation a necessity:
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 as they went up the hill…
Russell: We're not going for water — I hope you're on the pill!
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 on the 1968 revival of What's My Line? Producer Bob Stewart featured him regularly as a panelist on Pyramid throughout its 1970s and 1980s runs. Russell would also host the short-lived 1985 game show Your Number's Up as well as the early-'80s revival of Juvenile Jury.
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 1980s episodes of The $100,000 Pyramid are typical of his style and wit:
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 opposite of 'pro' is 'con'
This fact is clearly seen
But if 'progress' means move forward
What does 'Congress' mean?
When Russell appeared on Family Feud during a special game show emcee week, he had two poems to give:
Playing Family Feud today
Are some talented women and men;
Lost their jobs giving money away,
So now, they're trying to win!
Each day we turn another page.
You know you're reaching middle age
When your pimples and your rashes
Turn to wrinkles and hot flashes.
He was also a trained dancer, influenced in his youth by legendary performer 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, who had now been 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 would often appear during comedy sketches between scheduled guests and deliver his trademark rhymes.
Russell's final TV appearance was as a panelist for one week (specifically, a game show-themed week) on the final season of the Tom Bergeron version of Hollywood Squares.
He died in 2005 in New York City, after suffering from stomach cancer.
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