A stand-up comedian who became a national television personality through his frequent appearances on variety, talk and game shows, Nipsey Russell delighted audiences with his funny but topical four-line poems and was dubbed "the poet laureate of television."
Born in Atlanta on Oct. 13, 1924, he earned a degree in English at the University of Cincinnati and originally planned to teach English but was drawn away by the lure of show business: 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."
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 as Officer Anderson in the 1961-63 television sitcom "Car 54, Where Are You?" (he would reprise the role, now as a police captain, for the 1994 film version). He 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."
For many years during the 60s and 70s Russell was what he termed "the very first and the only" black regular on game shows, breaking 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, and he appeared routinely on such programs as "Hollywood Squares," "To Tell the Truth," "What's My Line" and "The Match Game." In 1985, Russell became one of the first African American game show hosts with NBC's "Your Number's Up. 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 and HBO's "The Chris Rock Show."
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," where his razzmatazz song 'Slide Some Oil to Me" served as the film's first real show stopper. 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!"