"Ed Nelson (1928-2014): Hollywood's Tireless Craftsman"

August 27th, 2014

Ed Nelson with Jim Longworth In the movie Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman played a struggling actor and drama coach who told his students, “You’re an actor. There’s no excuse for not working.” That fictional admonishment was a real-life mantra for actor Ed Nelson, who passed away at his home in Guilford County on August 9, at the age of 85. He is survived by Patsy, his wife of 64 years, four daughters, two sons, 14 grandchildren, and 10 great-grandchildren.

Ed Nelson was always working, and was the busiest actor I’ve ever known. He appeared in hundreds of stage plays, and over 140 television series, including a starring turn in the long-running ABC drama, Peyton Place. He also acted in over 50 films, the last of which was Runaway Jury in 2003, starring, appropriately, Dustin Hoffman.

Ed was born in New Orleans, but his family soon moved to North Carolina where his father worked as a contractor at Camp Lejeune. Early on, Ed frequently found himself getting into mischief. During a 2010 interview on my Triad Today TV show, Ed told me, “I was not the ideal student. I mean, my mother came to school more than I did.” (laughs).

Ed also told me about his high school days.

ED: I was raised on the coast of Carolina. I went half a year to Jacksonville High School and half a year at Swansboro until they opened a school on the base, and that was Camp Lejeune High School.

It was there that young Ed developed a strong work ethic.

ED: Even though my father was not in the Marine Corps, he was one of the construction people that helped build the base. He was a steam fitter, and I was his helper during the summers.

Ed also applied that work ethic to a variety of sports.

ED: If you could walk, you were a four-letter man in sports (laughs). So I played them all.

Regardless of Ed’s desire to succeed in athletics, his football team often came up short.

ED: We lost every football game except one. We beat New Hanover High in Wilmington. We beat them one night in a driving rain storm with about four inches of water on the field.

JL: And those folks from Wilmington still hate you to this day.

ED: They do (laughs).

After school, Ed pulled a stint in the Navy, then went on to attend Tulane University where he hoped to study law. But his focus changed when he was smitten by his future wife Patsy, and by his new mistress, acting. He later went to New York City to study television production, and that led him back to New Orleans, and a job as assistant director at WDSU-TV.

As fate would have it, famed B-movie director Roger Corman came to New Orleans to shoot Swamp Women, and Ed found himself working for Corman both behind the scenes and in front of the camera.

By 1960 Ed was fast becoming a fixture in prime time, appearing as a guest star on a myriad of TV shows, including Rawhide, starring a young Clint Eastwood. Upon hearing of Ed’s passing, Clint emailed me the following statement: “I knew Ed in the Rawhide days, and saw him briefly throughout the years since. He was a terrific guy.”

Ed was proving to be a talented, reliable character actor, and was working regularly in Hollywood when he was offered what was to become his signature role of Dr. Michael Rossi in ABC’s Peyton Place.

ED: I had been under contract to Universal for three years, and they wanted me to re-sign. My agent called and said he didn’t want me to re-sign. I said, “Wait a minute. I’m getting a check every week, and I’m working with all these great stars. What’s the show you have for me?” And he said, “It’s a big show over at 20th Century Fox called Peyton Place and they want you”. Then he asked me what I wanted. “Give me a parking spot on the lot with my name on it.”

Ed got his parking space, and more.

Peyton Place was an immediate hit, airing twice a week at first, then three times a week by the second season. The show was TV’s first prime time soap opera (though Ed hated that term), and the forerunner of Dallas, Dynasty, and all other dramas with continuing story lines.

One of Ed’s co-stars on Peyton Place was newcomer Ryan O’Neal, who was saddened by the loss of his friend. In an email to me last week, Ryan wrote, “Ed Nelson was a man amongst men. He will be sorely missed by us all.”

Peyton Place left the air in 1969, but Ed never wanted for work, and continued to stay busy on stage, in films and on television, including five appearances on
Murder She Wrote. My friend Angela Lansbury told me, “Ed Nelson was always a huge addition to the cast of Murder She Wrote on so many occasions. He will be sadly missed by me and his many friends in our industry.”

Another of Ed’s friends was Ed Asner, with whom he served on the Board of the Screen Actors Guild. Nelson was a staunch conservative, and Asner was the polar opposite. Nevertheless, the two Eds found common ground. Asner told me, “I found Ed to be a hard working actor for the union. I appreciate his efforts on behalf of the union, and even though we might have differed occasionally on some politics, I liked him. He was a good man.”

Ed and Patsy had planned to retire to their beloved New Orleans, but hurricane Katrina destroyed their home, so they relocated back to Ed’s adopted state of North Carolina, and settled in Guilford County near their daughter Beth, who lives in Oak Ridge.

In 2008, Ed and his friend Dr. Alvin Cotlar collaborated on Nelson’s biography, titled, Beyond Peyton Place.

Meanwhile 20th Century Fox released the first two seasons of Peyton Place on DVD. Ed was never more popular, and, well into his eighties, he was still in demand at nostalgia shows around the country, including the Western Film Fair in Winston-Salem.

My fondest memory of Ed was one afternoon in the TV station parking lot after we had taped a segment for Triad Today. Ed knew television inside and out, and we shared some common experiences. We had both started out working behind the camera, and while I never went into acting (a real break for the public), both of us enjoyed interviewing people. In fact Ed once hosted his own morning talk show for ABC. But no matter what Ed did, he did it well. I told him that I always looked forward to his guest starring roles because he made every scene he was in work better. I asked him about his success as an actor.

ED: When I first started in theatre in New Orleans, a film director told me “Just let yourself go.” Of course, you can’t let your physical body go.

JL: I have.

ED: (laughs)

Speaking of physical strength, Ed had that in spades. After we concluded our parking lot summit, he slapped me on the shoulder out of friendship. The only thing is, his slap knocked me off balance, and I outweighed the man by a good 70 pounds. Ed also had strength of character, and a work ethic that would put a beaver to shame. During our last interview, I asked him if he had ever turned down a role that he wished he hadn’t.

ED: I never turned anything down. My agent complained that I worked too much, and should have held out for the great roles. But I love to work. It was a relief to me, and God knows what I would have been if I hadn’t been an actor. I enjoyed it so much, and I worked at it very hard. I Ioved it.

Ed Nelson was a well respected, dedicated actor, and as far as he was concerned, there was just no excuse for not working. Those of us who saw him act were fortunate he felt that way.

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