He performed many Muppet characters over the years, including Floyd Pepper, Robin the Frog, Uncle Deadly, Crazy Harry, Camilla, Dr. Julius Strangepork, Thog, Droop, Lew Zealand, J. P. Grosse, Fleet Scribbler, Statler, Pops, T.R. the Rooster, Featherstone, Slim Wilson, Baskerville the Hound, Mad Monty, Blind Pew and countless others.
His other Henson credits include Sesame Street (where he had performed Count von Count, Herry Monster, The Amazing Mumford, Mr. Johnson, Biff and more) and Fraggle Rock (where he performed Gobo Fraggle, Pa Gorg, Marjory the Trash Heap, the Architect Doozer and others).
In 2004, Nelson announced that he would be moving away from performing his classic Muppet characters, citing health reasons. However, he continued to provide the voices of his Sesame Street characters, including Count von Count, with Matt Vogel performing the puppetry of said characters until Nelson's passing.
In late 2009, Nelson released his debut album, Truro Daydreams.
In 2011, Nelson returned to the Muppets to provide the voice of the announcer in The Muppets.
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.
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, 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, 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, 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 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; 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 Theater. 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.