Jerry Nelson, Muppet performer since 1965, passed away yesterday at the age of 78. As one of Jim Henson’s founding members, Nelson has been the body and voice of literally hundreds of characters on The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock and just about every Henson related film property ever made. Nelson had a huge range of voices and a musical talent that often had his characters in singing roles. It’s sad to think that he won’t get the chance to reprise his leading role in the upcoming Fraggle Rock Movie. So instead, let’s celebrate his life by laughing and learning along with his best characters.
10. Camilla the Chicken
Camilla started her career as just another background character, like a feathered prop for farm scenes or to play out chicken related gags on The Muppet Show, but as is with so many starring roles, the puppeteers were always trying to upstage each other and Camilla standing out from the other non-talking characters on the show is a testament to Nelson’s abilities. The Muppet was eventually given blue eye shadow so that she could be picked out in a crowd, but the running gag was that her boyfriend, The Great Gonzo (Dave Goelz) couldn’t tell her apart from any of the other chickens.
9. Lew Zealand
The goofy and flamboyant fish-monger Lew Zealand is another character that was created for a one shot gag, but quickly became a Muppet Show regular. Known to the Muppet staffers as a “whatnot” or “frackle”, Lew was a nameless face and torso designed by Goelz that Nelson ran with. His main claim to fame is his boomerang fish act: “I throw the fish away and it comes back to me!”, but he also taught them to sing and even used swordfish in a knife throwing act starring songstress/actress Leslie Uggams. According to Nelson “I think Lew was my tribute to Frankie Fountaine. He had that dopey voice, but he could sing beautifully. We never did that part of it on the show, but just the idea of this guy who had a boomerang fish act. There were some really ridiculous acts on the show, and that was one of the all-time dopey ones.”
8. Dr. Julius Strangepork
Star Wars and Star Trek were just begging for parodies and The Muppets weren’t going to be left behind, so when it came to adding a science officer to the Swinetrek, Nelson called, once again, on a background Muppet. This time a pig used in The Muppet Show’s pilot episode was aged with tufts of white hair and likely given a German accent and name from Peter Sellers’ title character in 1964’s Dr. Strangelove. The swine scientist has appeared in various roles outside of his spacesuit, often being grouped with other pigs or playing the “old guy” role where Statler and/or Waldorf would be too recognizable.
7. Mr. Johnson / Simon Soundman
The name might be unfamiliar to even rabid Muppet fans, but generations of Sesame Street viewers will remember a bald headed, brown moustachioed restaurant patron, constantly tormented by the mistakes of a fuzzy blue waiter named Grover (Frank Oz). Mr. Johnson would frequently pan to the camera and soliloquize to the audience about his frustrations, wondering out loud why he keeps coming back. This was a bit of a reversal for Frank Oz because his characters were typically on the receiving end of frustrations. Also known as Simon Soundman, Nelson’s characterization of the Muppet originally called “Fat Blue” would speak to various Street denizens, but replaced the who, what, where and how words with sound effects to giggle-worthy and educational consequences. Observant viewers might pick up that, based on one skit with Grover, Mr. Johnson and Simon Soundman were brothers.
6. Robin the Frog
As Kermit’s nephew, Robin helped bring out Kermit’s parenting side with fatherly guidance, but more importantly, Robin made it easy for younger viewers of The Muppet Show to relate. Nelson gave a sweet, child-like voice and innocence to the little amphibian with big dreams. Robin is often self-conscious about his diminutive nature but never stayed discouraged for too long, often expressing its up and downs similar in fashion to his uncle’s Being Green. One of the show’s most heartwarming moments came in season 1 when Nelson performed Robin singing Halfway Down the Stairs from a poem written by Winnie the Pooh scribe, A.A. Milne.
5. Mr. Snuffleupagus
One of only handful of full-bodied Muppets (in this case, 2 bodies), Snuffy’s first 7 years on Sesame Street were at the hands, torso, legs, feet and voice of Nelson. The mammoth (both in size and general look) Muppet, for many years, let kids know it was okay to have an imaginary friend and Nelson’s portrayal was of a gruff voiced fuzzy elephant, shy and just a little scatterbrained, but always loyal to his best friend Big Bird. Nelson gave up the role in 1978, most accounts being that performing the beast took a major toll on Nelson’s back, but Snuffy remains one of Nelson’s largest embodiments of friendship on screen.
4. Floyd Pepper
Floyd Pepper is the easy going 70’s bass player for The Muppet Show’s in-house rock band, The Electric Mayhem. His hip sarcasm is often aimed at “the man” and mainstream performers like Kermit and Miss Piggy. His costume and name are throwbacks to The Beatles but his musical inspirations fall more with Fats Domino. During a 1992 seminar, Nelson had this to say: “I always thought of Floyd as a character who had probably been a beatnik first . . . and then he was into jazz and poetry, and then he probably went along with the chase into rock and roll, because he needed a job. He drew the line at punk, as I probably did myself, I think. That’s why I can relate to Floyd, I guess, because he’s all those things.”
3. Uncle Deadly
Appropriately making his debut alongside Vincent Price in the first season of The Muppet Show, Uncle Deadly proved himself to be one of the more hideous looking creatures in the cast. As if a gargoyle came to life and dressed himself in the clothes of a corpse, Deadly was a sight to behold, but the only real horrendous aspect of the character was his acting. According to Nelson, Deadly was his tribute to John Carradine, an over the top actor frequently cast in horror movies of the time, describing his Muppet version as “the greatest ham actor of all time”. Deadly was more frequently a background character but saw quite a bit of the spotlight in 2011’s The Muppets (performed by Matt Vogel)
2. Count von Count
Though official sources will tell you The Count is not a vampire, this felt homage to Bela Lugosi’s Dracula is undeniable. Nelson performed the castle dweller with an Eastern European accent for the first time in 1972 and the arithmomaniac has been been a staple of Sesame Street ever since. Nelson first heard of the character from writer Norman Stiles and was immediately intrigued. “So I went, “Oh, cool,” and I went to Jim [Henson] and said, “You know, Norman’s writing this new character called the Count.” Jim said, “Let me hear it.” So I went (in my Count voice), “Yes, I vould love to do it!” and Jim said, “Yes, you can do it.” (Bonus, in the video above, keep an eye out for Nelson’s hand in between the flower pots near the wall).
1. Gobo Fraggle
I think I’ve saved the best for last. Some might put The Count at the top of their list for plenty of good reasons, but Nelson seemed born to perform Gobo. The active little fraggle is adventurous, bold, courageous and a natural leader. Gobo is the Indiana Jones of Fraggle Rock and seems to be able to do just about anything, with a little help from his friends. He’s always there when his friends needed him and wasn’t afraid to shy away from a challenge. I’d like to think this was Nelson’s own personality traits coming through stronger than any other Muppet he performed.
We’ll miss you Jerry.