TR Profile: Ron Neilsen

Ron Neilsen in his prime


By Tom Sinclair

Does life imitate art? You bet it does. Consider: When I was 12 or 13 years old, I gave voice to a TR actor named Ron Neilsen, whose principal claim to fame was playing an unflaggingly polite dipsomaniac in a show called ROBBIE: THE ADVENTURES OF A DRUNK. I hadn’t touched a drop when Ron Neilsen began his career; by the time I was 16, I was a real-life teen juicehead who would go on to drink his way through high school, out of college, and into rehab.

I’ve been sober for many years now but I still have a soft spot for old tosspot Ron Neilsen. It’s probably because his (my?) depiction of hapless alky Robbie B. Jones was graced with a peculiar sense of stumblebum nobility. Robbie was a beautiful loser who bumbled from dead end job to dead end job—hot dog vendor, fruit vendor, etc.--with a remarkable lack of bitterness and a simple-minded (if misguided) faith in human goodness. Robbie was mannerly, too: Everyone he dealt with, no matter how cruel and obnoxious, was accorded the courtesy of being formally addressed as “Sir” (Robbie never encountered any women).

ROBBIE, the show, was marked by an absurdist humor that was downright wacky. The theme song was an instrumental version of “I Could Have Danced All Night” from MY FAIR LADY over which a frenetic announcer would scream out the credits in a deranged fashion. And once the actors (that is, Tom Soter and me) started improvising, all logic went out the window.

In the series’ most bizarre episode, Robbie, reduced to working as a “garbage vendor,” sells 50 tons of trash to U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson for “two dollars and an autographed picture of Man Sam Rosen (and some whiskey).” The episode ends with a cliff-hanger (of sorts) after Robbie, oblivious to the possible consequences, arranges to have the garbage dumped on the White House. “It’s a commie plot!” an unidentified voice screams in the show’s chaotic final moments, as the announcer for some reason begins singing “Why Can’t the English?”

ROBBIE was arguably Neilsen’s finest moment, although he appeared in an assortment of other projects. Among these was the short-lived DRAFT DODGER, a preposterous rip-off of TV’s THE FUGITIVE with Neilsen as a conscientious objector being pursued by a federal agent dedicated to seeing his draft-dodging ass inducted into the military. Our man also starred as Officer Joe Bolton (google him, kiddies) in two made-for-TR movies, JOE BOLTON, DRUNK and THE DRUNK GOES TO HOLLYWOOD. (Listen for brother Neilsen in an episode of TALES OF MYSTERY, too.)

No matter the role, the Ron Neilsen persona was pretty much always the same: Addled, accommodating, and sweetly foolish. Of course, there’s nothing warm and fuzzy about active alcoholism, and it could be argued that Neilsen’s happy face portrayal of a lush’s life was irresponsible. Even so, just thinking about old Ron never fails to bring a smile to my face. He reminds me of that line from the Who’s “Whiskey Man.”: “Seemingly I must be mad, insanity is fun.”

Hell, let that be his epitaph: “RON NEILSEN, WHISKEY MAN: INSANE, FUN, DRUNK.”

Yeah, daddy!

Listen to:

Robbie: The Fruit Vendor
Taped: 1970
Robbie becomes a fruit vendor – for two different people. Robbie: Ron Nielsen.

Where Monsters Dwell

The Draft-Dodger: The Man on the Roof
Episode 1. Taped: 1971
On the run for 10 years, Dows eludes Capt. Smith, the man obsessed with his capture. Dows: Ron Neilsen. Capt. Smith: Tom Soter.

The Draft-Dodger: A Date With Uncle Sam
Episode 2. Taped: 1971
Working under the name Joe Lewis, Frank Dows (Ron Nielsen) works as a construction worker in LA. But his short temper and sarcastic manner gets him into trouble with his co-workers (Sam and Jack Rosen). Capt. Smith: Tom Soter.

The Draft-Dodger: Have a Glass of Orange Juice
Episode 3. Taped: 1971
Dows puts his trust in a suspicious news vendor, who may have contacted Capt. Smith. Dows: Ron Neilsen.

Jason Rogers: Guilty Until Proven Innocent
Episode 10 Taped: July 31, 1971
Rogers is implicated in the murder of John Pepitrius (Tom Sinclair) whom he was seen fighting with moments before Pepitrius was shot. Prosecutor: Tom Soter. Defense attorney: Ron Neilsen. Dohea: Jack Rosen.

Tales of Mystery: The Hudley Strikes Again Affair
Episode 18 Taped: September 11, 1971
With Johnson away, Tarrell is assisted by a bumbling replacement, Jack Logan, and his equally inept friend, Patty. Logan: Ron Neilsen. Patty: Alan Saly.