passed through Greensboro several times during the year I lived in North Carolina, having no idea that Ed Nelson lived there. To be honest, his was a name I didn't think about that often, though I certainly knew who he was. After all, if you're an aficionado of classic television, you're most assuredly familiar with one of the stars of Peyton Place.
Ed Nelson died in Greensboro this past weekend, and our loyal reader Mike Doran brought it up in a comment on my Robin Williams piece from Tuesday, pointing out that his death would likely go unnoticed compared to someone like Williams. He also mentioned Lauren Bacall, who died Tuesday, doubting that she'd get the space that Williams got. The gist of his comment, quoting David Frost, was that "... even in death, it seems, we're not equal ... "
I thought about that, and though Ed Nelson got an obituary in The New York Times, which I wager is going to be read by just a few more people than read this site*, it seemed appropriate that I spend a moment in consideration of Ed Nelson, if for no other reason than to try and equal things up a bit. I would be a bad steward of my avocation if I didn't do so.
*I'll stake the quality of my readers against theirs any day, though.
As the Times obit mentions, Nelson was a staple of television in the '50s and '60s. If you watch enough television from that era, you'll recognize his name, but even if by chance you don't, it's highly likely you remember having seen him. Peyton Place, which was a hell of a lot bigger deal than we realize today, ran from 1964 to 1969. He played Dr. Michael Rossi, one of the more stable elements of the show. Every soap opera*, it seems, needs a good-looking male lead, and Ed Nelson fit the bill perfectly.
*By the way, if you're inclined, as I might have been, to dismiss Peyton Place as a prime time soap, you wouldn't have wanted to voice that opinion around Nelson, who felt that calling it a soap "kind of cheapens it.” Unlike most soaps, Peyton Place was on film rather than tape, and did far more exterior shots and complex setups than a regular soap. Better to compare it to Dallas than to daytime television.
Peyton Place wasn't seen much in our house when I was growing up; I remember the iconography of the church steeple in the opening credits, and the theme song, but that's about it; I don't even remember Mia Farrow (more on her in the upcoming Saturday TV Guide story). But I saw Ed Nelson in countless other shows, guest shots in programs like The Fugitive, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and The FBI, and westerns from Have Gun - Will Travel to The Rifleman to Gunsmoke. He appeared on Perry Mason twice, as the defendant - not the killer. (That tells you something right there.) Variety lists some of his credits from the '70s: Marcus Welby, M.D., Cannon, Night Gallery, The Mod Squad, Mission: Impossible, Kung Fu, Ironside, Police Woman. So no matter your television tastes, I can almost guarantee you'd have seen Ed Nelson at least two dozen times without even searching him out.
As was the case with other actors of the time, he did movies and theater as well, an extremely successful career by any measurement. If he wasn't on the A list of actors, he nonetheless was never hurting for work. Which brings us in a roundabout way, perhaps, to the point of Mike's comment. Ed Nelson was a successful actor, a very well-known one of the time, but maybe he wasn't a celebrity. Maybe his "problem," the reason why we don't devote as much space to his death as we do to others, is that he was primarily known for his work, not for being a celebrity. He wasn't a larger-than-life character offscreen, he didn't do shtick, he wasn't married and divorce a half-dozen times, as far as I know he didn't do multiple stints in rehab. He was a working actor. He appeared in a lot of TV shows, and did more than his share of movies. People liked what he did, and liked the shows he was in.
And I think that deserves to be mentioned, and honored, every bit as much as that of the oversized celebrity. Don't you think?