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. Since then, Nelson has performed as a principal puppeteer in numerous Muppet productions including the Muppet movies, The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock, and various TV specials.
In 2004, Nelson announced he would be moving away from performing his classic Muppet characters, citing health reasons. However, 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 during the second season. In this season alone he was given a variety of new characters, including Herbert Birdsfoot, Sherlock Hemlock, Herry Monster, the Amazing Mumford, Little Jerry, Simon Soundman, and Farley. In 1972, he created the role of Count von Count, who is perhaps his best-known character. Another well-known character who Nelson performed was Big Bird's best friend, Mr. Snuffleupagus. However, most sources (including Sesame Street Unpaved and Sesame Street: A Celebration - 40 Years of Life on the Street) state that physical strain placed on him by the large puppet eventually hurt his back so much that he had to stop performing the character (although he continued to supply the voice only for a time). In a 2009 interview, Jerry Nelson gave a different explanation for giving up the role: "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." Other notable characters in Nelson's repertoire included 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 often paired with performer Richard Hunt. 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. They would also alternate in performing the character Rodeo Rosie.
39 Years on a 40 Year Street: An Essay by Jerry Nelson
“Today 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. “South 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!”
The Muppet Show
Jerry Nelson performed in both of the Muppet Show pilots. In The Muppets Valentine Show, he returned to the role of 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. In that special he also performed Statler, Dr. Nauga, Gluttony, Envy, Sloth, the Yellow Stalk, Whaddayasay Bird and the Gene Shalit Muppet.
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 characters (Floyd Pepper, Robin, Droop, etc.) from previous productions. 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 Nelson 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. Some of his regular characters, such as Floyd Pepper and Slim Wilson, were musicians and sang often. Many of his other characters have displayed their musical talents, whether it was Robin singing "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 has also performed many songs as one-shot characters, including "All of Me," "The Windmills of Your Mind," and "Three Little Fishies." In addition to frequent pairings with Richard Hunt characters, Nelson was also 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:
“Each 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:
“I 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.”
On Fraggle Rock, Jerry Nelson performed the show's lead character, Gobo Fraggle. He also performed Marjory the Trash Heap and Pa Gorg. Jerry Nelson was one of the few Muppet performers to perform voices in The Dark Crystal, performing the voices of the Dying Skeskis Emperor and the Skeksis High Priest. In The Christmas Toy, he performed Balthazar, who he would regularly perform on The Secret Life of Toys. He also wrote songs for the series. He also performed many characters on The Jim Henson Hour, though his only recurring character on that show was Beard.
Following Richard Hunt's death in 1992, Nelson once again performed the role of Statler, who he had originally performed. 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 occasionally performed on The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss. He performed Ubergonzo in Muppets from Space, and performed the Grouch Mayor in The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland.
Beginning around 2001, 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 given to Steve Whitmire starting with 2002's "Keep Fishin'" music video; Floyd to John Kennedy and then Matt Vogel, and Nelson's half of the Two-Headed Monster on Sesame Street 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, Floyd, Statler, Pops, Maxine, the announcer, and a rat. Nelson also continued to provide the voices of his Sesame Street characters, including Count von Count, and the Amazing Mumford, while Matt Vogel normally performed the puppetry. By 2008, Vogel had assumed most of Nelson's Muppet Show roles as well.
It was long rumored that health issues were beginning to limit Nelson's involvement in projects as the aging puppeteer continued to stay active in the ranks of the Muppeteers. Beginning around 2001, complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and prostate cancer limited Nelson's involvement with the high-demanding Muppet projects. Nelson openly stated in August 2006 that "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." 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. He also served as announcer for Jim Henson's Musical World.
Jerry Nelson died on August 23, 2012 after years of health issues complicated by COPD. His later work for Sesame Street continued to air into Season 44. Nelson's final performances as the Count include the song "Five By" and the street stories of episodes 4401 and 4411. He also voiced the Count for Kinect Sesame Street TV and the Universal Studios Singapore attraction Spaghetti Space Chase (as well as the SSNN announcer in the pre-show). Other posthumous performances include The Coffee Plant sketch as Mr. Johnson and a Word of the Day segment as Humpty Dumpty.
Nelson appeared posthumously in the documentary Muppet Guys Talking.
- 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), Forcryingoutloud Bird (episode 309), Fozzie Pig, Fred, Fungus, Fuzz Brother, The Gambler, Geri, Geri and the Atrics tambourine player (episode 517, 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, Mulch (episode 509), The Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, Opossum, Paul, Paul Revere, Pierre LaCousse, Pig Minister, 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, Whaddayasay Bird, 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 Jeffy (in a Grover sketch demonstrating "Walk"), Bill Compton Muppet, Bill Smith, Billy, Birdnardo Birdolucci, 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, Baby Monster, Ernest the Grouch, Farley, Farley (lavender boy), Felix the Grouch, Fico, Football, 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, 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, Leo Birdelli, Leonard Wolf, Little Bo Peep, Little Jerry, Lord Hog, Mad Man, Marty, Mary Rhymie, Maurice Monster, Mean Manny, Middle, Mike, Monster Cookie, Mr. Chatterly, Mr. Foot, Mr. Ice Cream Cone Man, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Lucky, Mr. Snuffleupagus (1971-1978), Natalie, Nick Normal, Noel Cowherd, Number Guy, 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 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 Royal Barber, Angry, Drippy, Snookey, Sparkey, The Smartest Person in the Kingdom, The Sun, The Young Man Who Lives in a Glove, Tina Twiddlebug, Tony (1970), Tony, Tornado, Tough Eddie, Trevor Trout, Two-Headed Monster, Uncle Louie, Vern, Vidal Spittoon, Walter, Walter, 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 the Hound Dog (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 Muppet 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, Yancey 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
- 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, Royal Advisor, Montague
- 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
- Abby in Wonderland: The Counterpillar
- Families Stand Together: Mr. Jerry
- The Best of Elmo 2: Dr. Sigmund Sillystuff
- The Muppets: The Announcer
- Elmo and the Orchestra: Leonard Birdseed
- It's Not Easy Being Green audio book: Performed quotes from Dr. Teeth, Fraggles, Doozers, the guitarist from The Cube, and others
- Muppets Inside CD-ROM: The Newsman, Statler, Lew Zealand, Floyd Pepper (archive footage)
- The Muppets: The 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.
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 Jerry "Twiddlebug" Nelson, Muppet Central Post 8/22/06
- ↑ ToughPigs: Jerry Nelson - The Album, 1/13/2010
- ↑ Nelson, Jerry Tough Pigs interview with Jerry Nelson
- ↑ jimhensonlegacy.org
- ↑ Muppets from Space: The Making of Muppet Movie Magic
- ↑ 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