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Gene Nelson, Dancer in ’50s Musicals, Also Directed Features and TV

September 18, 1996 GMT

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Gene Nelson, a loose-limbed dancer in 1950s Warner Bros. musicals who became a film and television director later in his career, died at age 76, his daughter said Tuesday.

Nelson died of cancer Monday at the Motion Picture and Television Fund Country House and Hospital, said daughter Victoria Gordo of New York City.

Nelson’s most famous role was cowboy Will Parker in the film version of ``Oklahoma!″ in 1955, a part remembered especially for his lasso twirling to the tune ``Kansas City.″

He also appeared with Doris Day, Virginia Mayo and other musical stars in such films as ``The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady,″ ``Tea for Two,″ ``The West Point Story″ (with James Cagney), ``Lullaby of Broadway,″ ``She’s Working Her Way Through College″ (with Ronald Reagan) and ``Three Sailors and a Girl.″

Born Gene Berg on March 24, 1920, in Seattle, his family moved to Santa Monica, Calif., where as a teen-ager he was inspired by a matinee.

``On a Saturday afternoon he went to see Fred Astaire in `Flying Down to Rio.′ By the time the film was over his life was changed. He decided to become a dancer,″ his daughter said.

After graduating from school he joined an ice show starring Sonja Henie and toured for three years. He joined the Army during World War II and appeared in ``This Is The Army,″ Irving Berlin’s Army show.

In 1957 Nelson was thrown by a horse, which fell on him and fractured his pelvis. He was hospitalized for months. He said in 1966, however, that the injury wasn’t the reason his dancing subsequently declined.

``The real reason I danced sporadically after I recovered is simple: There just aren’t enough musicals to keep dancers busy these days. You have to learn to do something else,″ he told The Associated Press.

Nelson turned to directing, first in television and then in feature films. He directed Elvis Presley in ``Kissin’ Cousins″ and ``Harum Scarum.″ Other films included ``Hand of Death,″ ``Hootenanny Hoot,″ ``Your Cheatin’ Heart″ and ``The Cool Ones.″

For television, he directed episodes of such series as ``The Rifleman,″ ``The Donna Reed Show,″ ``I Dream of Jeannie″ and ``The Mod Squad,″ among others.

He continued acting in dramatic parts and appeared on Broadway in 1971 with Alexis Smith, Yvonne De Carlo, Fifi D’Orsay and other stars of the past in ``Follies.″

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With the decline of Hollywood musicals, he sought to keep dance alive.

``I think he felt that dance kind of fell by the wayside,″ Gordo said. ``He enjoyed the attempts made to bring dance into film. He made an active role of his life to make sure dance was kept alive through the Professional Dancers Society.″

Nelson received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1990.

He is also survived by sons Christopher Nelson of Burbank, Calif., and Douglas Nelson of Los Angeles and three grandchildren. He was married three times.

There will be no services. A cremation was planned.