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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.

In late 2009, Nelson released his album Truro Daydreams.[1]

Early Works with Henson

Jerry Nelson with Saturday Night Live’s Scred.

Jerry Nelson and Dave Goelz on the set of Emmet Otter's Jugband Christmas.

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.

Sesame Street

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Jerry Nelson, with assistance from Richard Hunt, performing Herry Monster.

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Jerry Nelson and Fran Brill performing Biff and his niece Roxie Marie, during the taping of Sesame Street Episode 3136.

With Keith Hernandez and Mookie Wilson.

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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.[2] 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."[3]

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

β€œToday marks the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street. Other than the news, historically the longest running show on television. Well, with the possible exception of a soap opera or two. Still in all, it is humbling to have been a part of something so significant in the history of the media that was born in my lifetime.

Forty years, seems like a lifetime. Over half of my seventy five years on this planet has been spent being what has been referred to as a Muppeteer. It’s funny when I think about it because at least twenty of those years I denied being a puppeteer. I was an actor who was working with puppets until a film or stage job came along and all I really wanted to do was sing.

My grandparents used to give me a quarter to learn and sing songs when I was a sprout about five years old. β€œSouth of the Border” was maybe the first of a long list of tunes and I’m still learning them and singing them and will until the day I die. I don’t know if they knew the extent of what they were doing and how they were prepping me to have a way to get along in the world, but I like to think so.

I guess everything you observe and do and experience in life adds to that oneness that makes each of us so unique and at the same time makes us an everyman that shares the human condition in the most fundamental ways.

Working with the Henson organization was like working with your family and when I started working on Sesame Street that was another extended family so now the family was immense. The idea behind this Sesame Street project was to use the tool of television to teach underprivileged preschool children, but what happened was that the show charmed, taught, and brought love and laughter into the hearts and minds of children and adults all over the world.

Chance, dumb luck or destiny? Who knows the controlling force that chooses where and how we find our lives manifest?

I can only say I have traveled through the breathtaking up and down melody of a lifetime that, I studied and trained for, wandered the paths of least resistance (following my water nature) to, and that I am either blessed and one of the luckiest bozos walking this planet or both. In any case: Yeehaw, Hot Dawg, you old mustang you and Boy Howdy, today I’m celebrating by getting all my chores done for once! (Oh, didn’t I tell you? I’m also the laziest man on earth.)

Norman Stiles, who was the first writer to write for Count, sent me this yesterday:

'It's a beautiful thing. Happy Birthday! Let's put 40 candles in the cake! Then let's light 40 candles! Then let's blow out 40 candles! Then we must take 40 candles out of the cake! Then it will be time to lick the icing off of 40 candles! Then we'll eat the cake, taking one thousand tiny little bites! And then we will count the burps! Ha, ha, ha!'

Norman, obviously hasn't lost it but.... I wish I'd said that!”
β€”Jerry Nelson[4]

The Muppet Show

Jerry Nelson, with his puppet lookalike.

Jerry Nelson performing Floyd Pepper.

Nelson puppeteering Lew Zealand, performing one of his singing fish acts, during filming of Episode 524 of The Muppet Show.

Jerry Nelson with Robin the Frog.

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Jerry Nelson with Fleet Scribbler.

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:

β€œEach one of them is an aspect of my own personality. The Muppets are roles I assume, rather than puppets I manipulate. Robin, for instance, is an undersized metaphor for my own insecurities. He has a childlike curiosity about how things work. Uncle Deadly is the greatest ham actor of all time; Floyd is my laid-back, mellow side -- cool. And then there's Crazy Harry, whose ultimate trip is spontaneous combustion. An analyst told me I should develop that side of my personality. I don't think he meant I should go around exploding everything -- just that I should give my emotions more freedom.”

Nelson continued to speak fondly of his performance opportunities in later years:

β€œI feel blessed to have worked on something that has become such an icon of the times. I've certainly always thought I've been really lucky in that respect. I enjoy singing and I get to sing a lot. I get to be in a band (The Electric Mayhem) without really being in a band. All of those things make me say, 'Well, that's one blessing. That's another blessing.[5]”

1980s

Jerry Nelson as Gobo, with Steve Whitmire as Wembley.

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.

1990s

Jerry Nelson with Leslie Carrara-Rudolph on the set of Muppets Tonight.

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.

2000s

Dave Goelz and Jerry Nelson on the set of Muppets Tonight

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Jerry Nelson and Gobo Fraggle

Nelson in a Bossmen rig

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Jerry Nelson with Lew Zealand.

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Jerry Nelson records for Fraggle Rock.

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. β€œIt 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.”[6] 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.

2010s

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.

Puppeteer credits

Audio credits

Notes

  • 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.

Sources

See also

External links