Comedian and actor Nipsey Russell died Sunday of cancer in New York. He was 81.
Russell’s first major role was as Officer Anderson on the early-1960s sitcom “Car 54, Where Are You?” He’s also known for his many appearances on gameshows and talkshows throughout the 1960s and ’70s.
Appearing on shows such as “The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts,” “The Tonight Show,” “Laugh-In” and “The Jackie Gleason Show,” Russell often read one of his short poems, which earned him the nickname “the poet laureate of television.”
Among his film roles, the best known was the Tin Man in 1978 musical “The Wiz,” a box office disappointment that nonetheless became a cult favorite.
Born in Atlanta, Russell started in showbiz at the age of 3, doing a tap and rhythm dance routine as part of an act called the Ragamuffins of Rhythm. After attending the U. of Cincinnati and serving in WWII, he launched his showbiz career in 1949 in the early TV show “The Show Goes On” with Robert Q. Lewis. During the 1950s, he was a popular nightclub performer at Harlem’s Club Baby Grand.
He appeared on several other TV shows, including gameshows “To Tell the Truth,” “The Match Game,” “Missing Links,” “Your Number’s Up” and “Hollywood Squares,” as well as soaps “As the World Turns” and “Search for Tomorrow.”
His one-man comedy special was shown on Comedy Central, and he narrated the HBO docu “Mo’ Laughter,” about the black experience in comedy. He also was emcee for three years on BET’s “Juvenile Jury.”
Russell’s feature film roles included Snopes in Mario Van Peebles’ Western “Posse,” the principal of a ghetto high school in “Wildcats” and the Magic Maker in John Boorman’s “Dream One.”
In theater, he appeared in the road production of “The Odd Couple”; played Pseudolus in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at Harrah’s in Atlantic City, N.J.; and starred in the Long Beach, Calif., Civic Opera’s production of “Hello Dolly.”
More recently, Russell was a frequent guest on “The Conan O’Brien Show” and “The Chris Rock Show” and guest-starred in Sidney Lumet’s “100 Centre Street” and “The View.”
He had no survivors.