Nipsey Russell: 1924-2005

updated 10/17/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/17/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The opposite of pro is con./That fact is clearly seen./If progress means move forward,/Then what does Congress mean?" When Ed McMahon dubbed Nipsey Russell, the author of those wry lines—and about 600 other topical, four-line verses—"the poet laureate of television," he could make a good case. From Russell's 1964 game-show debut (as a panelist on the McMahon-emceed Missing Links) to his prolific stints on Match Game, What's My Line? To Tell the Truth and. Hollywood Squares, the Atlanta-born standup comic would use those gigs to delight audiences with his doggerel. "Truck drivers stop me and say, 'Give me a poem for my girl,'" he once said. "I have one on almost every subject."

Poetry was more than just shtick for Russell, who was 81 when he died of stomach cancer Oct. 2. Armed with a B.A. in literature from the University of Cincinnati, he considered becoming an English teacher. But showbiz won out over scholarship. Honing his act in Harlem clubs, he got his first national exposure on Ed Sullivan's show in 1957. "He was really the first African-American standup comic in the mainstream." says fellow comedian and Friars Club dean Freddie Roman. "He had that ebullient quality; he was always happy," says McMahon. "That's why he was on so many game shows." Offscreen, however, he was a bit of a loner. Though "he always had relationships with women." says his manager Joseph Rapp, Russell never wed. "He used to joke it was hard [enough] to live with himself," says Rapp. As for his career, Russell was ever the philosopher. "My saving grace has been words," he once said. "Words are the only things that endure."

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