Jerry Nelson

This is going to be hard.

Jerry Nelson was a good friend of mine. He was well known and loved by a great many people and deservedly so. His work as a performer, an actor, a musician, singer and puppeteer touched the lives of countless people around the world. He was known more for the roles he assayed with the Muppets: the Count, Pa Gorg, Gobo Fraggle, Robin The Frog, Emmet Otter, and so many more. To me he was my friend, my colleague, my mentor, my sensei.

I was never a fanboy of the Muppets, their characters or the performers who brought them to life. Oh sure, I ate up their work from back in the days of appearances on Ed Sullivan through the musical specials like The Frog Prince, Hey Cinderella and into the Muppet Show, the Muppet movies and larger and stranger fare like Dark Crystal. Everyone did. They were a fixture in popular culture; and the characters portrayed by Jerry always stood out amongst the others. Even whilst adoring them from afar for their craft it never occurred to me I’d find myself amongst them when production on Fraggle Rock began in 1982.

My first window to the world of the Muppets was Richard Hunt, who was in charge of the audition process and to whom I owe my entire career as a puppeteer and subsequent work in other roles creating productions in television. Richard and I worked closely together to create the character of Junior Gorg, finding our way through the odd and oft times inexplicable mesh of technical and intuitive performance that left both of us shaking our heads and always wondering: “How the hell did we just do that?” and always answering ourselves: “Don’t ask. Just accept it. And strive to do more.” Except we didn’t use the word “strive”, or any of those words actually, we just huddled in a corner and whispered: “Let’s not fuck with it.”

I learned a lot from Richard, about work, the business of the Muppets, life itself and perhaps the greatest thing he ever taught me was: “See that guy? That’s Jerry. Jerry is wise. Listen to him. You really can’t trust anybody in the world – including me, I’ll always be messing with you – but you can trust Jerry. Listen to Jerry.”

And so I listened.

And so I learned.

Jerry became a fast friend both on set and outside of the studio. I hung close to his elbow and savoured his words. The sight of him, perched on set, with the always present paperback SF novel plucked from his back pocket, face buried between the pages between takes, inspired me to feed the brain at every opportunity. His ability to step into any performance situation and make it work made me realize there was less need for extensive preparation and more need to be confident in your skills and always remain open to inspiration. He also, along with Richard, taught me that puppetry was not merely a technical performance – it was acting.

He inspired me and invoked the desire to inspire others.

Jerry’s wife, Jan, shared a studio with my wife, Karen, while Jerry worked in Toronto. We drank at the Pilot Tavern or at bar in the Four Seasons Hotel or at a small dark joint (gone now) called The Village Idiot. We savoured Japanese food in numerous locations and I always enjoyed when he could visit me at home. Trips to Toronto weren’t always work related and we reveled in Jan and Jerry’s holiday or impromptu visits.

The last time I saw Jerry was at his Cape Cod home when we stayed with him and Jan for a few days in August of last year. He was thin and frail and leashed to an oxygen tube that ran through the house like an umbilical cord. We sat together in the late hours, sharing a drink of scotch with a fond memory chaser, and he would play some music he’d been working on. He confessed to being wary of his impending fate, comparing his tubular attachment to the oxygen pump to regressing to a baby in the womb of his house. When we made an excursion into town to pick up the mail and have lunch he strapped on a portable oxygen bottle, commenting: “Outah the womb now. Major Tom.”

And while the tube he trailed behind him through the house seemed less like it was feeding him air and instead sucking the physical life out of him, he continued to be vibrantly alive and creative through every moment. One afternoon we were eating from a bowl of cherries in the kitchen and he started arranging the pits and stems on a plate, pausing now and then to take a picture of his emerging and evolving creation. I loved seeing him like that. Always observing. Always questing. Always expressing. And I knew at that moment just how much I loved him, how much he meant to me across the years and how much I would miss his presence.

Life is a bowl of cherries.

The universe is a vast thing. We are all a part of it, always have been and always will. We arrive here, upon this Earth and experience across the span of our lives what it’s like in this small corner of it all – and then we return. Like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim we shall all, eventually, become unstuck in time.

When we left Cape Cod, I gave Jerry a big hug and we looked into each other’s eyes, knowing it was for the last time. We both just whispered with a sigh: “Yeah.”

My thoughts are less with Jerry now and more with Jan, wishing her strength and comfort in heart and family.

Jerry’s time here has ended and we are the poorer for it. Personal loss and sadness overwhelms any knowledge in my heart or mind that we are endlessly rich for having known him and for being able to share our time with him. Death and dying sucks but it’s a package deal with this thing we call life. The universe itself, which doesn’t care one way or the other, is a richer place for having made a Jerry.

Words fail me now, except to say: Thank you, sensei.

This is Jerry and Louise Gold singing “When The River Meets The Sea” at Jim’s memorial. We’ll be singing it for Jerry at his.

2 Responses to Jerry Nelson

  1. Jan Nelson says:

    Rob, this is beautiful. I love it that Richard said that you could always trust Jerry. I have never thought of it just that way but it is true … you could really always trust him.

    I got a laugh from the memories of Jerry and I hanging out with you and Karen. Remember? Karen hurling chunks (very colorful … must have been sushi?) That Karaoke place? Karen musing on how she got pregnant … she slept in a ball of sperm. You being funny … very funny. It is all hash to me now and I have a hard time separating experiences. There was a lot of laughter.

    I never knew that he compared his oxygen tubing to an umbilical cord tying him to the house. Stuck as a baby in the womb of the house. Wow. Shit.

    I hate that he’s gone. I knew it would happen and thank god he was at home with people that he loved, but I simply can’t stand this.

    Thank you so much for such a beautiful tribute and teaching me stuff about Jerry that I didn’t know. I am still learning about and from Jerry.

    Love, Jan

    • Robbo says:

      Oh, Jan. You are wonderful. I can’t wait to see you again and give you a huge hug.

      Yes, it was the karaoke place – Jerry did a really awful rendition of Heartbreak Hotel and I slaughtered my throat with Twist & Shout. And it wasn’t sushi – it was shabu shabu.

      Love you.