Remember the Tin Man in '70s Film 'The Wiz'? He Lost His Battle with Cancer at the Age of 80

Monica Otayza
Aug 09, 2021
02:32 P.M.
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Nipsey Russell, best known for his role as the Tin Man in "The Wiz," passed away in 2005 at age 80 after a battle with cancer.


Nipsey Russell dedicated his entire life to entertainment, moving from performing on stage to television and film through the years.

However, in his last few years on earth, the actor suffered from cancer and succumbed to the illness when he was 80.

Nipsey Russell as the Tin Man walks in a scene from the film "The Wiz," in 1978 | Source: Getty Images



Russell was an actor who began his stage career when he was only three years old. He was part of a tap dance act called "The Ragamuffins of Rhythm."

In the 1950s, he was a nightclub performer at Harlem's Club Baby Grand, where he was eventually known as "Harlem's Son of Fun."

Actor Nipsey Russell at "The Aviator" film premiere | Source: Getty Images


In fact, he was so famous that celebrities from all over would come to the club to see him perform.

A couple of years later, his big break came when he was cast as Officer Anderson in the 1961 television comedy series titled "Car 54, Where are You?"

Nipsey Russell appearing in the Walt Disney Television via Getty Images series 'Barefoot in the Park' in 1970 | Source: Getty Images


He then went on to star in a couple of other big-screen movies such as "Fame" and the Tin Man in "The Wiz" in 1978, "Nemo" in 1984, "Wildcats" in 1986, "Posse" in 1993, and "Car 54" in 1994. 

While he had a lot of movies, it was on television that he made his mark. In 1957, he starred in "The Ed Sullivan Show," which got him more gigs in "The Jackie Gleason Show," "The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson," "The Dean Martin Show," and "Laugh-In."

Nipsey Russell hosting the unsold ABC tv game show pilot "The Ratings Game" | Source: Getty Images


This eventually led to even more shows, making his career even more remarkable, and he became the first black man to be featured on a game show.

Russell will always be remembered as the man who refused to use stereotypical dialects or play stereotypical roles in his acts, breaking barriers for rising comedians of all backgrounds.

Nipsey Russell with contestants, hosting the unsold ABC tv game show pilot "The Ratings Game" | Source: Getty Images


Besides, he was also known for his poetic delivery, which earned him the "poet laureate of television" title as he regularly recited standard four-line topical poems as part of his routine.

He later became one of the first African-American game show hosts with NBC’s "Your Number’s Up" in 1985.

Ronnie Robertson and Nipsey Russell during 49th Annual Directors Guild of America Awards Dinner at Sheraton Hotel in New York | Source: Getty Images


Aside from his career in the entertainment industry, he was also an Army captain in Europe during World War II.

His longtime manager Joseph Rapp said Russell has no immediate survivors as he was never married. He hoped to spare his future partner any trouble in being unmarried as he revealed he had trouble even with himself.

Nipsey Russell plays the Tin Man in a scene from the film "The Wiz," in 1978 | Source: Getty Images



Before it became a movie, Berry Gordy and Motown Productions bought the rights to the musical, and then they lobbied Diana Ross to land the iconic role of Dorothy.


The Wiz

" also cast Michael Jackson, who was a second choice to play the scarecrow role as they had wanted a singer to take on that part.

The cast of "The Wiz" (L-R Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Diana Ross and Ted Ross) pose for a publicity shot in 1978 in New York | Source: Getty Images

Also, at the last minute, Nipsey Russell replaced Ben Vereen, who was supposed to play the Tin Man. The film went on to become the most expensive musical to be produced at the time, as $24 million was spent on it.

Even though the film brought in only $13 million, Michael Jackson went on to win an NAACP Image Award for best actor while the film won the award for best picture.