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Jerry L. Nelson (July 10, 1934 – August 23, 2012) was an American puppeteer, best known for his work with The Muppets. Renowned for his wide range of characters and singing abilities, he performed Muppet characters on Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock, and various Muppet movies and specials.
On Sesame Street, Nelson's longest-running character was Count von Count, the counting vampire who took delight in counting anything he could. Nelson did the voice and puppetry for the Count from 1971 until 2004, and continued to provide the Count's voice until his death.
Nelson was the first puppeteer to perform Mr. Snuffleupagus, keeping the role from 1971 to 1978. Most sources (including Sesame Street Unpaved and Sesame Street: A Celebration - 40 Years of Life on the Street) state that back problems caused by the physical stress of the performance forced him to bow out, but in a 2009 interview Jerry Nelson gave a different explanation for giving up the role: "I was not loathe 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.".
He also performed many characters on The Muppet Show, including Sgt. Floyd Pepper (the bassist of the Electric Mayhem band), Pigs in Space star Dr. Julius Strangepork, the boomerang fish-throwing Lew Zealand, Kermit the Frog's nephew Robin the Frog, Gonzo's girlfriend Camilla the Chicken, and the Phantom of the Muppet Show, Uncle Deadly. Nelson's Muppets on The Muppet Show were all only supporting roles, but they did occasionally play a central role in an episode's plot.
Less prominent characters on the show include sportscaster Lewis Kazagger, Pops the doorman, gossip columnist Fleet Scribbler, and Scooter's uncle J.P. Grosse who owned the theatre. He performed Statler in the pilot episodes, but dropped the role when he could not perform full-time on the first season. He was a full-time performer for the rest of the show's run. Nelson was selected to play Statler after Richard Hunt's passing. He originated the role of Fozzie Bear's mother in Series 2 of the Muppet Show and reprised the role over the years in such things as the special A Muppet Family Christmas, and The Muppets at Walt Disney World.
Nelson performed the puppet and voice of Emmet in Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, a 1-hour special that originally aired on HBO. He later performed the signature song from that show, "When the River Meets the Sea," as Robin in a duet with John Denver for a Muppet Christmas special. That version of the song gets frequent radio airplay during the Christmas season (although the song is not seasonal).
On Fraggle Rock, he performed Gobo Fraggle, Pa Gorg, and Marjory the Trash Heap. Frank Oz did not perform on Fraggle Rock, and Jim Henson and Richard Hunt limited their time on the show, so they performed supporting characters. For this reason, Nelson was asked to perform Gobo, the central role on the show.
Nelson's characters were often singers or musicians. He performed the lead vocals for many songs as Floyd of the Electric Mayhem, Little Jerry of Little Jerry and the Monotones, Slim Wilson of Lubbock Lou and his Jughuggers, and a number of Anything Muppet bands. Most of his main characters in all three shows sang songs at one time or another.
Nelson had a daughter named Christine from his first marriage to Jacqueline Nelson Gordon. Christine had cystic fibrosis and died from the disease in 1982, after attending Rye Country Day School. Caring for her limited Nelson's involvement in the The Muppet Show's first season. She made a cameo appearance in the second Muppet movie, The Great Muppet Caper. Nelson's friend and employer, Muppets creator Jim Henson gave her a speaking part so she would become a member of the actors' union.
In 2004, Nelson announced that he would no longer be puppeteering his Muppet characters, citing health reasons. However, he continued to voice his characters on Sesame Street until his death. Matt Vogel performs Nelson's Muppet characters, as well as the puppetry of Count von Count, with Nelson following his death. Vogel will presumably start performing the Count, both voice and puppetry following Nelson's passing.
Nelson suffered from prostate cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and emphysema. For the last six years of his life, he required an oxygen tank to assist his breathing. On August 23, 2012, he died at his Cape Cod home from complications of his illnesses.