Last week saw the loss of two significant figures, two men whose careers couldn’t have been more different, yet both of whom had a profound effect on the world around them, and on me personally, one affecting me fancifully and emotionally, the other inspirationally. I’m talking about Muppeteer Jerry Nelson and astronaut Neil Armstrong.
Jerry Nelson began his career with the Muppets all the way back in 1965, working as, of all things, Rowlf the Dog’s right hand on THE JIMMY DEAN SHOW. Later in the 1970s, Nelson carved a bigger place for himself within the company working on SESAME STREET, where he created such characters as Snuffleupagus, Sherlock Hemlock, Herry Monster, The Amazing Mumford, and his most famous Sesame Street Muppet, The Count.
Nelson was also a valuable supporting player on THE MUPPET SHOW, bringing Floyd, Robin, Camilla the Chicken, Dr. Julius Strangepork, Uncle Deadly and many more characters to life. On the later FRAGGLE ROCK, Nelson was entrusted with the lead, starring in the series as Gobo Fraggle.
Nelson had an amazing ability to imbue his characters with a sensitivity and gentleness of heart, particularly in musical sequences. Take a look at this performance from THE MUPPET SHOW:
Or here, in which Nelson’s Floyd gets the spotlight:
I think my favorite performance of Nelson’s is this sequence from A MUPPET FAMILY CHRISTMAS, in which his Robin sits next to Kermit the Frog and the duo sing the opening lines of “It’s In Every One of Us.” It’s only a couple of lines, but it cracks my cynical black heart wide open every year without fail.
Nelson retired from puppeteering in 2004, although he continued voicing his characters like The Count on SESAME STREET until his passing last week. Nelson was 78 years old.
Neil Armstrong was an aerospace engineer, a test pilot and a professor, but the rest of his life’s not unworthy accomplishments can’t help but be overshadowed by the fact that the man set foot on the moon, and he was the first. Armstrong entered the space program in 1962 as part of “The New Nine,” the second group of pilots selected by NASA to become astronauts. Armstrong’s quick thinking and initiative during the Gemini 8 mission, when the spacecraft became stuck in a rolling maneuver, most likely saved the lives of Armstrong and his fellow crewman, and demonstrated the kind of calm, quiet nerve Armstrong would become famous for. We would see that nerve again in Armstrong’s training for the moon landing, in which he was flying an ungainly device nicknamed “the Flying Bedstead,” and from which Armstrong ejected just seconds before it crashed to the ground and exploded in a ball of flame, which the parachuting Armstrong then lightly drifted over:
When I think of Armstrong and Aldrin descending to the moon in that fragile, rickety lunar lander, with less computing power than my cell phone and walls no thicker than several sheets of aluminum foil, the courage it must have taken staggers the imagination. They had no real guarantee they’d ever leave the moon once they’d touched down, and yet they went ahead anyway, because their President asked them to, and to demonstrate to the world what mankind was capable of.
Armstrong, instantly and forever changed as one of the most famous men in history, handled his newfound fame with remarkable dignity and restraint, never cashing in on it for personal gain, and retreating from the limelight whenever possible. At the news of his passing last Saturday, Armstrong’s family released a touching statement on how to honor him: “For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”
Nelson and Armstrong. Two men who couldn’t have lived more different lives, yet both accomplished something I think we should all try to live up to. Whether it was Nelson teaching children to count or Armstrong teaching humanity to dream, they left the world a little better than they found it.
Scott Tipton offers his condolences to the Nelson and Armstrong families, and all who were touched by their work. If you have feedback, send it here.