The career of American singer and actor Russell Nype (b. Zion, IL, 26 April 1924) has been steady but relatively low-key, despite his having won two Tony Awards® as Best Featured Actor in a Musical (for Call Me Madam in 1951 and Goldilocks in 1959). He has appeared in four big-screen films, including Love Story (1970) and Can’t Stop the Music (1980, directed by Nancy Walker and winner of the 1981 Razzie Awards for Worst Picture and Worst Screenplay). Nype has been a guest on thirteen different television series, played off-Broadway and in regional theatre, and sung in many concerts and cabaret events.
“I went to Lake Forest College,” Nype said in an interview in 2005. “All the professors said what do you mean, you’re going into the theatre? with the glasses – I never could see – and the buck teeth and all. But in New York I was the only person who looked the way I looked. Everybody else was so glamorous. First thing I did was go out and buy contact lenses.” But Russel Crouse, one of the writers, with Howard Lindsay, of the book of Call Me Madam, put the glasses back on Russell Nype’s face in 1950, saying, “We like you with the glasses – they give you character.” On his own, Nype had the buck teeth straightened.
Russell Nype’s 1949 Broadway debut was in Marc Blitzstein’s opera Regina (“a very dignified show”), which was based on Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes. (It is unknown how Nype first came to Blitzstein’s attention.) He sang and spoke the part of Leo Hubbard, the unprincipled (like most of the family) youth who steals bonds from his uncle’s safe-deposit box. The show had only a limited six-week run, but Nype’s lyric baritone made a great impression (Noel Coward congratulated him, “Dear boy, that was brilliant!” and later became his good friend and sometime accompanist) and qualified him to audition for George Abbott, Irving Berlin, and Lindsay and Crouse. After 52 performances in a musical called Great To Be Alive with Vivienne Segal, Nype took on the part of Kenneth Gibson, the press attaché to Ethel Merman’s Sally Adams in Call Me Madam.
The song with which Russell Nype and Ethel Merman made history as a duo, “You’re Just in Love,” was not written until after the first tryout in New Haven (where Nype sported a crew-cut to distinguish him from the Yale students). Composer Irving Berlin was so pleased with Nype’s show-stopping performance of his solo “It’s a Lovely Day Today,” that he stayed up all of one night and wrote the ever-popular “I hear singing and there’s no one there/ Ya don’t need analyzing,” presenting it to Nype the next day. “Don’t tell Ethel you’ve heard this song before she did,” said Berlin. When Merman did hear it, her reaction was “We’ll never get off the stage.”
The song debuted in Boston and, as Nype says, “she was right. Seven encores. Best showstopper ever written.” In New York the show ran for 644 performances, and Russell Nype won the 1951 Tony Award® for Best Featured Actor in a Musical as well as a Theatre World Award.
Call Me Madam closed in May of 1952, at which time Nype forayed into the world of television, in the series Studio One in Hollywood and Appointment with Adventure, and in 1955 a production of Ogden Nash, S.J. Perelman, and Kurt Weill’s musical One Touch of Venus, with Janet Blair. In 1956 he was back on Broadway in Wake Up, Darling, a non-musical that was a non-starter at the box office, but the following year he played Enoch Snow in a popular revival of Carousel at the City Center. In 1958 he had another resounding success as Elaine Stritch’s co-star in Goldilocks (1958), winning another Tony Award® for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. (He starred again with Stritch in Private Lives off-Broadway at Lucille Lortel’s Theatre de Lys.)
In the early ’60s, Russell Nype was seen on several television series (Startime 1960, The Aquanauts 1961, The DuPont Show with June Allyson 1961) but his Broadway engagements were disappointing: the 1963 revival of Brigadoon at the City Center was brief, and Once for the Asking (1963) and The Girl in the Freudian Slip (1967) were utter flops.
In 1968 he appeared in the television production of Kiss Me Kate, and in 1970 he (as Cornelius Hackl) and Ethel Merman (as Dolly Levi) had a joyous reunion performing in the last eight months of the original record-breaking run of Hello, Dolly! (Merman had been a close friend ever since Call Me Madam, even spending summer vacations with Nype and his family at their house in Kennebunkport, Maine.)
That same year Nype made his first movie, Love Story with Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal. He was never tempted, however, like so many others to move to the West Coast, because he “never liked doing movies.” To this day he is still getting “residuals” from the Oscar-winning Love Story.
Nype’s last appearance on Broadway was in 1981 as a replacement in the Tony®-winning revival of Morning’s at Seven. He repeated his performance (as David Crampton) on television in 1982 and toured all over the United States in the production with Maureen O’Sullivan, another close friend. He continued to appear on series television: in 1979 four episodes of Dorothy with Dorothy Loudon, playing a strict principal of a girls’ school; then Fantasy Island (1981,1982), One Day at a Time, (1982) The Cosby Show (1989), Murder, She Wrote (1989), and Who’s the Boss? (1991).
Nype and his wife, whom he married in 1953, lived for 50 years in New York City and Kennebunkport (“The first person I met there was Senator Prescott Bush who asked me to lunch”). A decade ago he moved to the eastern end of Long Island. As of 2005, he was still commuting in to Manhattan once a week to sing with his regular accompanist. “My voice is just as good or better than it was. I could open at the Carlisle in two weeks. I smoked two or three packs a day for twenty years or more, but gave it up about fifteen years ago.” He doesn’t go to Broadway shows; microphones ruin the sound of voices for him. The thrill, he says, is reaching the last row of the theatre without one.
– Lucy E. Cross