David Lee Nelson, a former Charleston actor, comedian and playwright died Thursday morning. Nelson was best known in recent years for work that addressed his cancer; Stages took a blunt, comedic look at his diagnosis with colon cancer. The Greenville County Coroner’s office confirmed Nelson’s death. He was 42.
Stages drew inspiration from Nelson’s self-described “chemo blog,” which he most recently updated on 9/11, writing: “Perhaps what happened nineteen years ago this morning did change the course of my life, yet I have never been able to see it. That’s a humbling thought. Perhaps that is what I should never forget. Anyone else feel like that?”
Before Stages, Nelson was a Piccolo Spoleto darling, performing biographical works like Status Update (a 2010 show about being freshly divorced — and sober) and The Elephant in My Closet, in which Nelson describes coming out as a Democrat to his father.
Former City Paper editor Chris Haire remembered Nelson on Twitter as a “City Paper favorite.”
Kinsey Gidick, who followed Haire as editor, recalled interviewing Nelson for a cancer support magazine earlier this year. Nelson talked about his work with young cancer patients, helping them channel their emotions through writing.
Nelson told her: “I was thinking these kids don’t want to fucking write about cancer. But every single one of them wrote about their cancer diagnosis. Every single one of them. They wrote the funniest, most personal, unique stuff that we all related to. One girl was like, ‘The weirdest reaction I’ve gotten was someone came up to me, and you know how people are always like oh my so-and-so has cancer or my aunt has cancer trying to relate? Well, someone came up to me and said, ‘Oh, my dog also has cancer.” Of course we all just fucking died laughing.”
Nelson left Charleston in 2016 to pursue bigger acting gigs in Atlanta and most recently was based out of Greenville working as a professor at Furman University. He married his wife Jaimie Malphrus in a small ceremony earlier this year.
The Greenville News covered the wedding, which took place at Greenville’s Bon Secours St. Francis hospital. Nelson told the paper, “We were sad that our families weren’t able to be there, but I think during a time like this, when we’re all locked in, we really got to find joy and happiness where it presented itself.”
Nelson also had his first book, Hope in the Time of Chemo, published this year. The Post and Courier described the book: “At times irreverent and at others riotous, Hope in the Time of Chemo amiably ricochets from life’s mundanities to its existential underpinnings.”
Gidick, who covered Nelson’s work for years at the City Paper, says she’ll remember him for his writing — and his ability to continue writing through life’s tragedies.
“I’ll remember all that and I’ll write it down here,” said Gidick. “Because, as he said, that’s the only thing that gives the devastating news of his premature death any purpose.”