Nipsey Russell: 1924-2005
updated 10/17/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 10/17/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT
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."