Jerry Nelson (July 10, 1934 - August 23, 2012) started his puppeteering career working for Bil Baird. Throughout the '60s, he worked on-and-off with Jim Henson. In 1970, he joined the company and began working regularly on Sesame Street. Nelson performed as a principal puppeteer in numerous Muppet productions for over thirty years, including the Muppet movies, The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock, and various TV specials.
By the mid 2000s, Nelson had stepped away from performing his classic Muppet characters, due to health reasons, but he continued to voice his characters on Sesame Street. In 2005, he was one of the narrators on the audiobook version of It's Not Easy Bein' Green, displaying his vocal versatility by reciting most of the quotes from Muppet characters, including Dr. Teeth and the Doozers.
Early Works with Henson
Jerry Nelson first worked with Jim Henson in 1965 when Frank Oz got drafted and Henson needed somebody to perform the right hand of Rowlf on The Jimmy Dean Show. However, Frank Oz failed his draft physical, but since Nelson had just gotten his job, Oz chose to take some time off from performing and thereby allow Nelson to stay on with the Muppets.
One of Nelson's first major roles was Featherstone in Hey Cinderella! and The Frog Prince. Throughout the early 1970s, Nelson also performed a full-body monster named Thog, who appeared in The Great Santa Claus Switch and various variety show appearances. In The Frog Prince, he performed Kermit the Frog's nephew Robin for the first time; however, in that appearance, although Robin's voice and personality were the same, the character was actually a prince who was turned into a frog. Nelson also performed T.R. and Caleb Siles in The Muppet Musicians of Bremen, Scred on Saturday Night Live, and Emmet Otter in Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas.
Jerry Nelson became part of Sesame Street as it began its second season. In this season alone, he was given a variety of new characters, including Herbert Birdsfoot, Sherlock Hemlock, Herry Monster, Little Jerry, Simon Soundman, and Farley. In 1972, he originated the role of Count von Count, who is perhaps his best-known character. Other notable characters in Nelson's repertoire included The Amazing Mumford, Mr. Johnson, Frazzle, Sam the Robot, and Fred the Wonder Horse. He also did announcer voices very often, including the announcers for the Sesame Street News Flash and Super Grover openings.
Nelson was also the original performer of Big Bird's best friend, Mr. Snuffleupagus, operating the front half while Richard Hunt was the back half. Nelson eventually ceased doing the physical puppeteering for Snuffy, for a time only providing the voice before dropping out of the role altogether. Most sources (including Sesame Street Unpaved and Sesame Street: A Celebration - 40 Years of Life on the Street) state that Nelson stopped playing Snuffy after hurting his back. In a 2009 interview, Nelson gave a different explanation: "I was not loath to give that character up. But the reasons for giving it up were because at that time we were doing The Muppet Show and he was a real part of the show, and they needed his presence. So they asked if I'd mind giving it up."
Nelson and Richard Hunt were often paired together on Sesame Street. While goofing around on the set one day, they acted like a two-headed monster, and inspired by this, a Two-Headed Monster character was created for them. Jerry Nelson performed the left half of the monster, and because of this, had to perform the character's head with his left hand. (Most performers use their right hands to perform the heads of their characters.) Nelson and Hunt also performed a duo known as Biff and Sully.
Aside from his prolific Muppet performances, Nelson has lent his vocals to a number of live-action and animated song inserts. These have included "Moonshine," "Don't Waste Water," rerecorded versions of Joe Raposo's "Frog Struggle Song" and "There's a Bird on Me," and the Number Guy segments. Nelson's announcing duties extended to Elmo's World, voicing the announcer heard on Elmo's TV (replacing Ron Marshall after Season 32) that introduces the channel Elmo is watching.
39 Years on a 40 Year Street: An Essay by Jerry Nelson
The Muppet Show
Jerry Nelson performed in both of the Muppet Show pilots. In The Muppets Valentine Show, he reprised Thog and also performed Droop and Miss Mousey. In The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence, he performed Electric Mayhem bass player Floyd Pepper for the first time, Statler, and several other roles (including Dr. Nauga and two of the Seven Deadly Sins).
When production began on The Muppet Show as a series, Nelson chose to spend some time with his daughter and therefore couldn't perform in every first-season episode. Because of this, he had to give up the role of Statler, but for the most part he retained his other established characters (Floyd Pepper, Robin, Droop, etc.) Nelson did not perform in episodes 101-103 and 111-115. However, when the first two episodes were reworked later in the first season, Nelson performed Floyd in a segment that was added to episode 102.
None of Nelson's characters were as central to the show as characters like Kermit, Miss Piggy, and Scooter, and therefore he often played major one-shot backstage characters, such as Irving Bizarre, Big Tiny Tallsaddle, and Angus McGonagle. His notable recurring characters included Camilla the Chicken, Pops, Louis Kazagger, and Dr. Julius Strangepork. One such character, Lew Zealand, was originally intended as a one-shot, but soon became a recurring character. Beginning in the second season, Nelson took over two of John Lovelady's roles: Crazy Harry and the Announcer. Nelson went on to perform nearly every Muppet announcer in a major Henson production until 2002. Nelson was also given such rarely-seen recurring characters as J.P. Grosse, Fleet Scribbler, and Uncle Deadly.
In addition to his versatility at character dialects, Nelson was an accomplished vocalist, and often received showcases on The Muppet Show. This applied to musician characters such as Floyd or Slim Wilson, regularly used in band and musical numbers. Other regular characters also vocalized: Robin on "Halfway Down the Stairs" or "I'm Five," Thog singing "Oh Babe What Would You Say," or Pops singing "Once in Love With Amy." Nelson performed many songs as one-shot characters, including "All of Me," "The Windmills of Your Mind," and "Three Little Fishies." Nelson was often paired with Louise Gold in musical numbers, such as "Henrietta's Wedding" and "Your Feet's Too Big."
On his characters, Jerry Nelson was quoted in a 1978 "Muppet Show Fan Club" newsletter:
Nelson continued to speak fondly of his performance opportunities in later years:
On Fraggle Rock, Jerry Nelson performed the show's lead character, Gobo Fraggle. He also played Marjory the Trash Heap and Pa Gorg. Nelson was one of the few Muppet performers to record voices in The Dark Crystal, as the Dying Skeskis Emperor and the Skeksis High Priest (puppeteered by others). In The Christmas Toy, he performed Balthazar, who he would reprise on the series The Secret Life of Toys (for which he also wrote songs). On The Jim Henson Hour, he recurred as Beard and played various one-shots and prominent supporting roles in the one-shot specials.
Following Richard Hunt's death in 1992, Nelson took over the role of Statler, which he had originated in The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence. He also performed The Ghost of Christmas Present in The Muppet Christmas Carol, as well as Mad Monty and Blind Pew in Muppet Treasure Island.
He performed many minor characters on Muppets Tonight, and was The Snoozer in an episode of The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss. Nelson was a lead performer in the two theatrical Muppet outings from Jim Henson Pictures, where in addition to his regular characters, he played Ubergonzo in Muppets from Space and the Grouch Mayor in The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland.
In the early 2000s, Jerry Nelson began to phase out performing his primary Muppet Show family characters. Many of his characters drifted to silent background roles and several were recast; Statler was assumed by Steve Whitmire starting with 2002's "Keep Fishin'" music video, Floyd Pepper was briefly recast to John Kennedy, and Nelson's half of the Two-Headed Monster on Sesame Street was passed to Joey Mazzarino in 2001. For the 2002 TV movie It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, Bill Barretta replaced him as Lew Zealand, but Nelson looped the voices of Robin, Statler, and others. At the same time, Nelson was still actively performing on Sesame Street.
It was long rumored that health issues were beginning to limit Nelson's involvement in the high-demanding Muppet projects as he continued to stay active in the ranks of the Muppeteers. Nelson stated in an August 2006 post that he had been dealing with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and prostate cancer. “It is long and boring but I have had health issues for a couple of years now. Different ones...I do intend to work with my old friend Count Von Count again this next season.” By the late 2000s, Nelson could no longer do the physical puppeteer work, but he continued to voice the Count and his other characters for Sesame Street while Matt Vogel normally did the puppetry. Starting in 2008, Vogel took over most of Nelson's Muppet Show roles as well.
Nelson also participated in exclusive DVD interviews for the first two seasons of Fraggle Rock and Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas.
Although he was uncredited, Nelson reprised his role as announcer during The Muppet Telethon in 2011's The Muppets. Audio clips of his original introductions to Veterinarian's Hospital and Pigs in Space are also heard in the film, when Kermit first walks into The Muppet Theatre. In 2012, Nelson participated in Frank Oz's documentary Muppet Guys Talking (which was finally released in 2017), and served as announcer for the concert Jim Henson's Musical World.
Jerry Nelson died on August 23, 2012 after years of health issues complicated by COPD. His final segments for Sesame Street aired into Season 44. Nelson's last performances as the Count include the song "Five By" and the Street story for Episode 4401. He also voiced the Count for Kinect Sesame Street TV and the Universal Studios Singapore attraction Spaghetti Space Chase (as well as a news announcer in the pre-show). Other posthumous performances by Nelson include "The Coffee Plant" sketch as Mr. Johnson and a Word of the Day segment as Humpty Dumpty.
The main story for Sesame Street Episode 4411 (produced after Nelson's passing) was written in tribute to the performer, celebrating his best-known Sesame character. Nelson's likeness is depicted on the Noble Prize for Counting and, for the Count's entrance at the story's climax, archive audio of Nelson is edited together to form new dialogue. Nelson's introductory voice-over from The Muppets was re-used in Muppets Most Wanted. The film was dedicated to him and Jane Henson.
- The Muppet Show: African Mask (Fire), Albert Flan, Angus McGonagle, The Announcer (1977-1981), Automatic Wastebasket, Bagpipes (episode 520), Baskerville the Hound (episodes 106, 116, 208 and 308), Beakie (episode 412), Behemoth (episode 202), Benny, Big Tiny Tallsaddle, Bruno, Burlington Bertie, Bust of Beethoven, Camilla the Chicken (1978-2003), Cheesecake, Chuckie, Crazy Harry (1977-2003), Dancers, The Dancing Clown, The Devil, Doglion (episode 209), Dodo (episode 415), Dracula, Droop, Eel (episode 417), Emily Bear, Eric the Parrot, Eric the Yodeling Clam, Featherstone, Female Koozebanian Creature, Fleet Scribbler, Floyd Pepper (1975-2003), Clyde (episode 309), Fozzie Pig, Fred, Fungus, Fuzz Brother, The Gambler, Geri, Geri and the Atrics tambourine player (episode 517), one of the Gills Brothers, Gingerbread Man, Gorgon Heap (episode 201), Granny the Gouger, Gnu, Harold, Herman, House #1 (episode 107), House #2, Humpty Dumpty, Irving Bizarre, J.P. Grosse, Jar of Orange Marmalade, Jerry, John Cleese's Agent, Julius Strangepork, Koozebanian Phoob, Lenny the Lizard (episode 107), Leticia, Lew Zealand (1978-2003), Louis Kazagger, Sundance (episode 416, episode 505), Luncheon Counter Monster (occasionally), Mean Mama (occasionally), Merdlidop, Mickey Moose, Miss Mousey, Mome Rath, Mulch (episode 509), The Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, Opossum, Paul, Paul Revere, Pierre LaCousse, Pops, Prince Rudolph, Punching Bag, The Queen (episode 121), Quongo (episode 513), Robin the Frog (1971-2003), Sacrificial Idol, Salzburg Sauerkraut Singer, Sarcophagus, Scotsman, Shark (episode 417), Screaming Thing, Shouting Lady, Singing Owl, Slim Wilson, The Sphinx, Statler's Grandson, Super Sheep, Talking Machine, Thog, Thudge McGerk, Tom, Dick, and Harry (Tom), Uncle Deadly, Vendaface, Vendawish, Harvey, Whatnot Monster, William Tell, The Witch Doctor, Yellow Creature, Yorick, Zelda Rose (episode 218)
- Sesame Street: Adam T. Glaser, Al, Andy, a banana from "Bilingual Fruit Song" (speaking voice only), Barry Rhymie, Bennett Snerf (monster version), Biff, Big Barney, Big Jeffie (occasionally), Bill Compton Muppet, Bill Smith, Billy, Birdnardo Birdtolucci, Captain Cabbage, Carlos, Charlie (occasionally), Chester O'Leary, Christopher Columbus, Chunky Cheese, Clam, Claude Cuckoo, Cookie Hood, Cookie Monster's Pop, Cookie Monster's Sister, Corny the Corn, Count von Count (1972-2012), Cousin Monster, Cyranose de Bergerac, David Finch, Don Dula, Dr. Livingstone, Dr. Snuffenstein, proto-Elmo, Ernest the Grouch, Ernie Statue, Farley, Farley (lavender boy), Felix the Grouch, Fico, Football, Frank Malone, Frankie Monster, Frazzle, Fred the Wonder Horse, The Genie (1976), George, George Washington ("Sesame Street News Flash"), Granny Grouch, Green "Fat Cat" performer, Green Ed, Grouch Cop, Grouch Mayor, Guntag Gelman-Jones, H. Ross Parrot, Harvey Monster, Herbert Birdsfoot, Herman Bird, Herry Monster (1970-2003), Hickory Dickory Duck, Hopalong Hamster, Humpty Dumpty, I. M. Pig, J Friend, Jack Be Nimble, Jackman Wolf, Japanese Storyteller, Jerome, Jimmy, Joe, Kathleen the Cow, Kermit the Forg, Kermit the Gorf, Kermit the Grof, King Wasteful V, Lefty's Boss, Leo Birdelli, Leonard Wolf, Little Bo Peep, Little Jerry, Lord Hog, Mad Man, Marty, Mary Rhymie, Maurice Monster, Mean Manny, Middle, Mike, Moe (ice cream vendor), Monster Cookie, Mr. Chatterly, Mr. Foot, Mr. Ice Cream Cone Man, Mr. Jerry (voice), Mr. Johnson, Mr. Lucky, Mr. Quincy, Mr. Snuffleupagus (1971-1978), Natalie, Nick Normal, Noel Cowherd, Oak Tree, Old King Cole, Pamela, Parker Monster, Pesties, Phil Harmonic, Pierre, Piper Piper, Poco Loco (1974-1978), a potato from "Grow High Grow Low", Prince Firstly, Professor Nucleus Von Fission, Pumpkin Monotone (in the song "Proud"), Ricardo Monsterban, Rick, Rocky (baby), Rocky (Wiggly Tooth), Rodeo Rosie, Ronnie Trash, Sam the Robot, Sammy the Snake, Sandy the Snake, Scotty McKilt, Sergeant Thursday, Sheriff Shrimp, Sherlock Hemlock, Simon Soundman, Sir John Feelgood, Sleeping Beauty, Slimey, Sneaky the Elf, Snooks, Sullivan ("Numerical Correspondence"), Teeth, The Amazing Mumford, The Big Bad Wolf, The Country Mouse, The Emperor, The Fastest Person in the Kingdom, The Gonk, The Great Fentini, The Hare, The London Frog, The Miller's Daughter, The Mudman, The Royal Barber, Angry, Drippy, Snookey, Sparkey, The Smartest Person in the Kingdom, The Sun, The Young Man Who Lives in a Glove, Three-In-A-Row Smith, Tina Twiddlebug, Tony (1970), Tony, Tornado, Tough Eddie, Trevor Trout, Two-Headed Monster, Uncle Louie, Vern, Vidal Spittoon, Walter, Walter, Whispering Sam, Witch, Xavier, the Martians, Zizzy Zoomer, The Oat Bran Zydeco "Je Ne Sais Quoi" Band Lead Singer, various announcers and others
- The Jimmy Dean Show (1965-1966): Rowlf's right-hand
- The Ed Sullivan Show: Clam, Twill
- The Great Santa Claus Switch: Thog, Zippity, Snivelly, Green Scoff
- Tales from Muppetland: Featherstone, Caleb Siles, Rover Joe (puppet), Stepsister #2, Sweetums (puppetry only), T.R.
- Muppet Meeting Films: Announcers, P. Fenton Cosgrove
- One to One: The King of Phumph
- Saturday Night Live: Scred
- The Muppets Valentine Show
- The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence: Floyd Pepper, Statler, Envy, Gluttony, Gene Shalit Muppet, Thomas Jefferson, Yellow Stalk
- Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass: Miss Piggy, Muppet Man, Beautiful Day Monster (voice only)
- Peter Alexander präsentiert Spezialitäten #10: Ernie
- Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas: Emmet Otter, Doc Bullfrog, Melissa Rabbit, Stanley Weasel, Will Possum, Yancy Woodchuck
- The Muppet Movie: Floyd Pepper, Camilla the Chicken, Robin the Frog, Lew Zealand, Crazy Harry
- The Great Muppet Caper: Floyd Pepper, Dirty Bird, Pops, Lew Zealand, Louis Kazagger
- The Dark Crystal: Dying Skeksis Emperor (voice), Skeksis High Priest (voice)
- Fraggle Rock: Gobo Fraggle, Marjory the Trash Heap, Pa Gorg (face and voice), Architect Doozer, Archbanger Fraggle, Balsam the Minstrel (occasionally), Feenie Fraggle, Fishface Fraggle, Mervin Merggle, Rudy Vallee Doozer, Uncle Gobo
- The Muppets Take Manhattan: Floyd Pepper, Camilla the Chicken, Lew Zealand, Crazy Harry, Pops, Bear
- Follow That Bird: Count von Count, Biff, Herry Monster
- The Christmas Toy: Balthazar
- Little Muppet Monsters
- The Muppets: A Celebration of 30 Years: Floyd Pepper, Robin the Frog, Count von Count, Lew Zealand, Crazy Harry, Pops, Two-Headed Monster
- A Muppet Family Christmas: Emily Bear, Robin the Frog, Floyd Pepper, Count von Count, Gobo Fraggle, Two-Headed Monster, Camilla the Chicken, Lew Zealand, Herry Monster
- The Jim Henson Hour: Beard, Orange Extreme, Jo Beth Garfdoohoo
- The Muppets at Walt Disney World: Robin the Frog, Emily Bear, Floyd Pepper, Camilla
- The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson: Robin the Frog, Floyd Pepper, Lew Zealand, Camilla the Chicken, Frogs
- The Muppet Christmas Carol: Robin the Frog (as Tiny Tim Cratchet), Statler (as Jacob Marley), Ghost of Christmas Present (face and voice), Emily Bear (as Fozziwig's Ma), Pops, Lew Zealand, Mr. Applegate, Father Mouse, Pig Businessmen, Rat Bookkeepers, Penguins, Inkspots, Singing Food
- Dog City: Big Time Producer
- Muppet Sing-A-Long: Billy Bunny's Animal Songs: Cecil Bear, Raccoon 2, The Turtle, Frogs
- The Secret Life of Toys: Balthazar, Bratty Rat, Dinkybeard
- Muppet Classic Theater: The Big Bad Wolf, Loyal Royal Advisor, Montague, The Royal Jester
- Muppet Treasure Island: Blind Pew, Mad Monty, Statler (as Figurehead of the Hispaniola), Floyd Pepper, Calico, Sal Minella, Island Heads, Inkspots, Old Tom, Octopuses, Skulls, Jaques Roach (Cabin Fever), Mr. Plagueman, Spotted Dick, Old Joe, Singing Food
- The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss: The Snoozer
- Muppets Tonight: Statler, Lew Zealand, Elvises, Floyd Pepper, A. Ligator, Baby Jerry, Clarissa, Dr. Watson, Eggheads, Ernest Pleth, The Head of the Network, Indiana Rat, The Irish Rodents, Jowls, The Mad Bomber, Mama Fiama, Moo-Ing, Percy, Phil, Mr. President, The Rock Lobsters, Rob Reiner Muppet, Robbie, Robot Abraham Lincoln, Stosh, Taylor the Turkey, and The Two-Headed Comic (Left Head).
- Muppets from Space: Ubergonzo, Robin the Frog, Floyd Pepper, Statler
- The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland: Count von Count, Mr. Johnson, Pestie, Grouch Mayor, Grouch Cop
- It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie: Robin the Frog, Statler, Pops, Floyd, Maxine, Announcer, Rat
- Abby in Wonderland: The Counterpillar
- Families Stand Together: Mr. Jerry
- The Best of Elmo 2: Dr. Sigmund Sillystuff
- Sesame Street: Number Guy; solo/lead vocal performances on the songs "Moonshine," "Don't Waste Water," "I'm the Big One Now," "In My Book," "Don't You Go Back In"; remakes of "Frog Struggle Song," "Young MacDonald," "Planets, Moon and Stars," and "There's a Bird on Me"
- Muppets Inside CD-ROM: The Newsman, Statler, Lew Zealand, Floyd Pepper (archive footage)
- Big Bird's Band Plays Together: Narrator
- The Magic Shoes: Narrator
- Silly Stories: Narrator, Mean Marty
- Elmo and the Orchestra: Leonard Birdseed
- What's the Name of That Song?: The Number 8
- It's Not Easy Being Green audio book: Performed quotes from Dr. Teeth, Fraggles, Doozers, the guitarist from The Cube, and others
- The Muppets: The Announcer
- Spaghetti Space Chase: Sesame Street News Network (SSNN) Announcer
- Muppets Most Wanted: The Announcer (reused from The Muppets)
- His daughter Christine, who was dying of cystic fibrosis, made a cameo appearance with him in The Great Muppet Caper.
- Nelson also wrote songs for Muppet productions: "Don't Throw It on the Ground" (lyrics) for Sesame Street and various songs (lyrics, music, or both) for The Secret Life of Toys.
- Hennes, Joe. ToughPigs "Jerry Nelson: The Album", January 13, 2010
- See Talk:Michael Earl
- Nelson, Jerry. ToughPigs "A Chat with Jerry Nelson, part 3", December 12, 2009
- Muppets from Space: The Making of Muppet Movie Magic
- Jerry "Twiddlebug" Nelson, Muppet Central Post 8/22/06
- 1/17/1971 'Ed Sullivan Show - String Quartet' | Jim Henson's Red Book
- The Muppet Mindset interview with Jerry Nelson, part 1 part 2 part 3
- ToughPigs.com 2009 interview with Jerry Nelson
- Kenneth Plume's 2000 interview with Nelson
- Jerry Nelson on Breathing.com
- Jim Henson's Red Book entry about Nelson's beginnings with the Muppets
- Jessica Max Stein's obituary/memorial essay for Nelson
- Halfway Down the Stairs fansite (archive.org)
- "Remembering Jerry Nelson" playlist on SesameStreet's YouTube Channel