Jerry Nelson, whose versatile talents invigorated Muppet productions for six decades through characters like The Count Von Count, Emmet Otter, and Lew Zealand, has died. He was 78.
Nelson’s path first crossed with that of Jim Henson while both worked at NBC affiliate WRC in Washington, D.C.—Nelson as a page and Henson as onscreen talent, using WRC as the home base for early Muppet commercials and his first TV series, Sam And Friends. Yet it wasn’t until both were living and working in New York City that Nelson, having performed with puppeteer Bil Baird as part of Baird’s “Show-Go-Round” presentation at the 1964/65 World’s Fair, inquired about working with Henson. In need of a performer to fill in for the departing Frank Oz, Henson requested an audio tape of character voices from his prospective collaborator. Though Henson turned up his nose at an approximation of his signature character, Kermit (who was not yet a frog), he liked enough of what he heard—and later saw, when running Nelson through some puppet work—and the two began a creative partnership that would last until Henson’s death in 1990. That partnership would continue on in spirit through 2011’s The Muppets, in which an uncredited Nelson reprised his role as The Muppet Show’s go-to announcer during the film’s climactic telethon sequence.
While rarely a marquee presence in The Muppet Theater, Nelson often served as the resident agent of chaos on The Muppet Show, whether as unhinged pyrotechnics enthusiast Crazy Harry, mad Pigs In Space scientist Dr. Julius Strangepork, or the master of the boomerang fish, Lew Zealand. True to the depths of his skills, however, it was the meekest of Nelson’s Muppet Show characters, Kermit’s nephew Robin, who scored the performer his greatest level of notoriety, notching a Top 10 single in England with an adaptation of the A.A. Milne poem “Halfway Down The Stairs.”
In the years following The Muppet Show, Nelson would remark that his fondest memories of the series revolved around musical performances with guests like Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Dizzie Gilespie, and Pearl Bailey. Nelson was undoubtedly the strongest singer among the core Muppeteers staffing The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, and Fraggle Rock, displaying a musical range that ran from the gravel and grit of Electric Mayhem bassist Floyd Pepper to the arithmetically themed Romani folk tunes of Count Von Count to the twangy stylings of Gobo Fraggle and Emmet Otter. In 2009, Nelson’s musical side manifested itself in the form of Truro Daydream, a full-length album of original songs featuring cameos by Sesame Street co-stars Kevin Clash and Fran Brill.
In a 2009 conversation with Muppet fan site Tough Pigs, Nelson stated that the personalities of his Muppets were frequently inspired by the character actors he’d grown up watching in the movies and hearing on the radio: The Count is Bela Lugosi, Lew Zealand was a tribute to Frankie Fontaine, and one-time drinking partner John Carradine gave way to the haughty theatricality of Uncle Deadly, “the phantom of The Muppet Show.” (He need not point out that Dr. Strangepork is a lift of Peter Seller’s Dr. Strangelove character in name, disposition, and cartoonish German accent.) In turn, Nelson, who was trained as an actor but fell into puppeteering between stage roles, was himself the character actor among the original Muppeteers, a chameleon whose felt-and-fur alter egos helped make Henson’s worlds feel rich, vibrant, and lived-in. Floyd gave The Muppet Show a counter-cultural edge; Mr. Johnson provided a perpetually perturbed foil to the ever-optimistic Grover; Marjory The Trash Heap infused the Fraggle Rock mythos with an earthy mysticism. Across multiple universes of colorful personalities, Nelson’s may have been the most colorful of all. If Jim Henson was the heart of The Muppets, and Frank Oz the brains, then Jerry Nelson was the soul.