The actor, who had been suffering from cancer, died Sunday afternoon at Lenox Hill Hospital, said his longtime manager Joseph Rapp.
Born in Atlanta, Russell was only three years old when he began his stage career as part of a tap dance act called The Ragamuffins of Rhythm.
In the 1950s in New York, he rose to fame as a nightclub performer. Russell, Rapp told WCBS-TV, kept everyone laughing at Harlem's Club Baby Grand, was known as "Harlem's Son of Fun," and celebrities began to come from all over just to see him perform.
Russell's first big break came in the role of Officer Anderson in the 1961 television comedy series "Car 54, Where are You?" He went on to appear in a number of big screen movies, including "Fame" in 1978, "Nemo" in 1984, "Wildcats" in 1986, "Posse" in 1993, and "Car 54" in 1994.
But it was on television that Russell really made his mark. In 1957, he made his first of many appearances on "The Ed Sullivan Show," exposure he parlayed into gigs on the variety and talk shows of the day: "The Jackie Gleason Show," "The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson," "The Dean Martin Show," and "Laugh-In."
As an actor, he turned up on everything from "Barefoot in the Park," "Police Woman," "The Love Boat" to "Search for Tomorrow," "As The World Turns," "Spin City" and "100 Centre Street."
Russell was the first black man to be featured on a game show and was a frequent guest on programs including "The Match Game," "To Tell The Truth," "The $10,000 Pyramid" on up through "Hollywood Squares" just two years ago.
Among other things, Russell was known for a poetic delivery that earned him the moniker the "poet laureate of television," and he took his signature four-line poetry on the road for readings and performances.
He settled in New York after graduating from the University of Cincinnati and serving as an Army captain in Europe during World War II, Rapp said.
Russell never married. "He always said, 'I have trouble living with myself, how could I live with anyone else,"' Rapp said. "But he was a wonderful guy, very quiet, never bragged."