Nipsey Russell, Who Played Tin Man in 'The Wiz', Died from Cancer at 80 Back in 2005

Nipsey Russell died in 2005 at the age of 80 and left behind a legacy that melded comedy and poetry.  He was also the inspiration for the name of slain rapper Nipsey Hussle.

The tragic death of Nipsey Hussle struck a chord in the music industry but it also served as a reminder of the man whose name inspired the rapper’s name – Nipsey Russell. 

Nipsey Russell on December 14, 2004 at the Zeigfeld Theatre in New York City | Source: Getty Images/Global Images Ukraine

Nipsey Russell on December 14, 2004 at the Zeigfeld Theatre in New York City | Source: Getty Images/Global Images Ukraine

TWO NAMES, ONE FUNERAL

It was the day of Hussle’s funeral and several notable speakers took the stage to pay tribute to the slain rapper.

One of them, Louis Farrakhan made the mistake of addressing Hussle by another name – Nipsey Russell. He erred twice which drew more attention to the fact that Hussle’s name was actually inspired by the famous comedian.  

POET LAUREATE OF TELEVISION

Many from this generation may not be familiar with the Nipsey Russell but his decades-long career left enough to be appreciated.

He made his mark on television as a regular fixture in talk and game shows and he was also known for delivering rhymes earning him the nickname, “poet laureate of television.” 

HIGHLIGHTS OF HIS DECADES-LONG CAREER

Russell started early at the age of three when he tap-danced on stage as part of the group, The Ragamuffins of Rhythm. By the 1950’s he was performing in nightclubs as a stand-up comedian. His gigs at Harlem’s Club Baby Grand drew celebrities and he was deemed “Harlem’s Son of Fun.”

Alongside his comedy stints, Russell maintained a career in television and film. His credits included his breakout series, 1961’s "Car 54, Where are You?” and appearances on talk shows including “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Jackie Gleason Show,” “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” “The Dean Martin Show,” and “Laugh In.”

Nipsey Russell and Soupy Sales at Patsy's Resturant October 5, 2001 in New York City | Source: Getty Images/Global Images Ukraine

Nipsey Russell and Soupy Sales at Patsy's Resturant October 5, 2001 in New York City | Source: Getty Images/Global Images Ukraine

Russell was also a frequent guest of game shows. In fact, he made history as the first Black man to appear on one. He was a regular on “The Match Game,” “To Tell the Truth,” “The $10,000 Pyramid,” and “Hollywood Squares” where he would deliver his self-made poems from memory.

His comedy likewise extended to film when he landed roles in “Fame” in 1978, “Nemo” in 1984, “Wildcats” in 1986, “Posse” in 1993, and “Car 54” in 1994. But more importantly, he will best be remembered as the Tin Man on “The Wiz” where he starred alongside Michael Jackson and Diana Ross. 

SINGLE UNTIL DEATH

While Russell’s career flourished, his personal life wasn’t as colorful. The one-time army captain during World War II opted to remain single. His reason, according to his longtime manager, Joseph Rapp who quoted the comedian, “I have trouble living with myself, how could I live with anyone else?”

Russell died in October 2005 after losing his battle with cancer. He was 80. His ashes were scattered in the Atlantic Ocean. 

THE TRAGIC DEATH OF HIS NAMESAKE

Less than fourteen years later, the man who used Russell’s name as inspiration for his own moniker was murdered. Nipsey Hussle was standing outside of his clothing store when a man he reportedly had an altercation with earlier shot him several times. 

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Hussle, whose real name was Ermias Joseph Asghedomwas a rapper who was also known for his entrepreneurial sense and charitable efforts. His untimely death sent shockwaves across the industry and even encouraged his peers to paint their luxury cars Nipsey Blue as a tribute.  

Nipsey’s killer has been arrested and is facing trial for murder.