A genial, well-respected, all-around “nice guy”, the breezily handsome Barry Nelson was born Haakon Robert Nielsen on April 16, 1917, in San Francisco, California, to Betsy (Christophersen) and Trygve “Ted” Nielsen, both Norwegian immigrants. He was raised in nearby Oakland and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1941. A talent scout from MGM caught Barry in a college production of “Macbeth” and quickly sized up his potential. Cast in earnest secondary roles including Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) and Dr. Kildare’s Victory (1942), he was assigned the lead in the war film A Yank on the Burma Road (1942). Serving in WWII, he appeared in the Moss Hart play “Winged Victory”, in what would become his Broadway debut, in 1943 and a year later he appeared as “Corporal Barry Nelson” in the 1944 film version of the play. Barry lost major ground in films during the post-war years, but certainly made up for it on the live stage by appearing in a string of New York successes ranging from “The Rat Race” to “The Moon Is Blue.”
On TV, in addition to becoming a trivia statistic in the Hollywood annals as being the first to give video life to Ian Fleming’s “007” agent James (“Jimmy”) Bond in a one-hour production of “Casino Royale” in Climax! (1954), Barry lit up the small screen in such dramatic programs as Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955) and, in particular, a memorable episode of The Twilight Zone (1959). He also starred in the series The Hunter (1952), a Cold War adventure, and My Favorite Husband (1953), in which he played the level-headed mate and “straight man” to daffy blonde Joan Caulfield. In the 1960s he continued to demonstrate his acting muscle on stage and TV, although he did manage to preserve on film his starring role in Mary, Mary (1963), a huge Broadway hit with Debbie Reynolds co-starring in place of stage partner Barbara Bel Geddes. The lightweight play “Cactus Flower” with Lauren Bacall was another bright vehicle, but star Walter Matthau’s clout cost Barry the part when it went to film. Through it all Barry remained a thoroughly solid professional, particularly in the realm of TV-movies. Such standouts include his neighbor/undercover agent to criminals-on-the-run Don Murray and Inger Stevens in The Borgia Stick (1967) and his blind plane crash survivor in Seven in Darkness (1969).
The 1970s proved a very good decade indeed for Barry theater-wise with “Seascape,” “The Norman Conquests” and Liza Minnelli’s “The Act” among his pleasures, the last-mentioned earning him a Tony nomination. Despite co-starring roles in the blockbuster hit Airport (1970) and comedy Pete ‘n’ Tillie (1972), the silver screen would not become his strong suit in later years. By the early 1990s he had fully retired.
A popular, clean-cut, down-to-earth “Average Joe” with a charmingly sly side, you just couldn’t help but like Barry Nelson. Although he certainly could play the deceptive villain when called upon, he was usually the kind of guy you’d root for having as a neighbor, pal or business partner. Divorced from actress Teresa Celli for quite some time and completely retired now, he and second wife Nansilee (they married in 1992) traveled extensively and enjoyed antique shopping in particular. In 2007, during one of their many excursions, Barry passed away quietly at age 89 at a hotel in Bucks County, Pennesylvania.
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