Gene Nelson (1920-1996) was a familiar face in 1950s musicals from Warner Brothers, a talented hoofer, singer, and amiable screen personality. He was born Leander Eugene Berg in Oregon, and became interested in dancing after watching films featuring Fred and Ginger when he was a child.
Although he never became a big star as a performer, or later as a director, Gene made appearances in a number of films which are remembered with affection today – notably, he is Will Parker in ‘Oklahoma!’, his final musical film (he’s the one who dances with the rope and sings about ‘Kansas City’), he partnered Doris Day three times (in ‘The West Point Story’, ‘Tea for Two’, and ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ – in which they make a winning team), and appeared a trio of films with Virginia Mayo (‘Painting the Clouds with Sunshine’, ‘She’s Back on Broadway’ and ‘She’s Working Her Way Through College’).
After taking a break from performing in front of the camera to direct Elvis Presley in a couple of weak musicals (‘Kissin’ Cousins’ and the appalling ‘Harum Scarum’), Gene’s career took a step up when he appeared on stage as Buddy in Stephen Sondheim’s backstage musical, Follies, in which his easy charm and pleasant singing voice created a memorable character.
Gene Nelson was always honest about his limitations. On his dancing he had the following to say: “In my heyday, I could only do about four pirouettes without starting to fall, but with film, I could do a dozen by cutting and editing. The magic of film is that you can create anything you want.” Perhaps so, but film is permanent, and he remains a decent hoofer on the screen who deserves to be remembered.
Classic Damsel has posted a video in tribute to Gene on YouTube: