Ask this former actor how he’s managed to stay in the elite tier of TV stage managers for some 35 years, and he’ll tell you it’s mostly a case of being in the right place at the right time. And in his line of work, that’s the most important thing.
Nelson likes to credit others, including mentors George Stevens Jr. and stage manager Ray Sneath, but his long career shuttling the biggest stars in entertainment to their marks—he’s worked more than two dozen Oscar telecasts—is more a testament to his unflappable work ethic.
His professional mantra, “the buddy system,” in which he is always looking out for the talent, is an offshoot of his own years as an actor dealing with “red light syndrome.”
“I make sure performers go out on stage with their full palette of colors,” says Nelson. “I’ve always wanted to be the guy they can look to off-camera for a nod of approval that everything’s all right.”
That’s no easy task in live television, where there are no second chances. “Madonna [at the 1991 Academy Awards] was probably my most famous close call,” says Nelson. “She came up from a lift at the Shrine to sing the song from Dick Tracy, and when the pop-up mic didn’t come up with her, we did an orchestra vamp of one extra bar, and ran a hand-mic out to her. I told [director Jeff Margolis] I was sending an A2 out, and to give us protection. Viewers probably saw a flash of a guy in a tuxedo race out, before Jeff cut back close to Madonna singing.”
Then there was the 1985 Primetime Emmy Awards when an imposter went up on stage and said he was accepting Hill Street Blues star Betty Thomas’ award for her. “I grabbed another Emmy and ran it on stage with 10 seconds before we went back to air,” Nelson says with a laugh. “The next day the Los Angeles Times ran a front page photo of me in the Calendar section that read: ‘Unknown technician returns stolen Emmy to Betty Thomas.’”
Nelson may have been a calming presence to the biggest stars at the Oscars, but even they turned into gawking fans for We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial in 2009, an event Nelson calls the most memorable in his career. “Even being the guy who gave the cue to light the cauldron during the opening ceremony at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah has to take a backseat,” he says.
“I’ve done these types of events since President Reagan, and I’ve never seen the Secret Service more on edge than when Obama came out from his box and began shaking hands,” Nelson remembers. “There were so many people stage left where I was working, that I could tell they were close to shutting it down. I asked everyone to step back and let the agents do their jobs. A few moments later the president-elect walks through with his family, shakes my hand, and says, ‘Hey, we gotta have a picture with the crew.’ I say, ‘Sir, we would love that but I don’t think it would make your detail happy,’ and he nods and moves on.”
Nelson laughs recalling his biggest “buddy system” experience ever. “I knew if we did the photo, everyone behind me would surge forward, pulling out cameras, and it would be pandemonium. I guess I took one for the team. But in my mind, it was safety first, and I assumed there would be another opportunity to meet the president.”