Born May 11, 1964 in Tulsa, OK into a Jewish home, Nelson's maternal grandparents fled Germany before the Nazis started World War II. After graduating Holland Hall School, Nelson matriculated at Brown University where he studied the classics and drama, earning the Workman-Driscoll Award for Excellence in Classical Studies. More keen on becoming an actor, he attended the famed Juilliard School, where he also began writing and directing one-act plays, some of which starred future stars Laura Linney and Jeanne Tripplehorn. Upon finishing Juilliard in 1990, Nelson was writing full-length plays while still pursuing his acting career. In 1992, his play "Eye of God" was produced by the Seattle Repertory Theatre and was named Best New Play by The Seattle Times. Also during this time, he co-starred on the sketch comedy series "The Unnaturals" (HA!-CTV, 1990-92), which earned him CableACE Award nominations for writing and performing. On American television, he was in "Hardcore TV" (HBO, 1993), a sketch comedy show featuring adult-oriented skits. Back on stage, he co-starred in "An Imaginary Life" at Playwrights Horizons in New York, then made his feature debut in Nora Ephron's This Is My Life (1992).
With his career as both a writer and actor on the rise, Nelson kept himself busy performing on stage while looking for whatever on-camera work he could find. After playing a detective in Hal Hartley's quirky comedy thriller "Amateur" (1994), he played the scurrilous and deformed Thersites in a Delacourt Theater production of Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida" (1995). A guest-starring spot on John Leguizamo's short-lived sketch comedy series, "House of Buggin'" (Fox, 1994-95) was followed by a small part in Heavyweights (1995), a family comedy about a group of overweight boys sent to a fat camp run by a militant fitness guru (Ben Stiller). Despite the consistency of work, Nelson was unable to make himself known to audiences in largely small nameless parts. He amplified himself a bit in "Larry McMurtry's Dead Man's Walk" (ABC, 1996), the fourth installment of the acclaimed "Lonesome Dove" saga, but for the most part, continued to carve out his fortunes on the stage. He did himself no favors as an anonymous cockroach in MTV's lame attempt at comedy, "Joe's Apartment" (1996), leading him to refocus his efforts on his true creative outlet.
In 1996, Nelson produced "The Grey Zone," a stark look at a group of Sonderkommandos, concentration camp prisoners working with the Nazis to help dispose of the corpses of their fellow Jews in exchange for medicine, cigarettes, better food and a few more months to live. Eliciting both horror and raves from critics and audiences, "The Grey Zone" - an allusion to an unclear moral ground - was an unsettling, but ultimately humanistic look at the Jewish enablers at Auschwitz, inspired by an essay written by Primo Levi. The following year, Nelson wrote and directed a film version of his play, Eye of God (1997), a widely acclaimed, Sundance-screened drama he developed at the Sundance Institute that echoed the strong themes of life and death from the play, while bringing a truly fresh and evocative visual approach to the material. Nelson returned to acting that year, playing an FBI techie in the crime drama Donnie Brasco (1997). After playing the small role of Private Tillis in Terrence Malick's stirring war film "The Thin Red Line" (1998), Nelson directed the dialogue-driven short "Kansas" (1998), the same year that his prison-set one-act play "Andarko" was staged in New York starring David Patrick Kelly.
On the strength of "Eye of God," Nelson was tapped to direct O (2001), a modern-day update of "Othello" set at an elite private school that centered on an NBA hopeful (Mekhi Phifer), the dean's daughter (Julia Stiles), and a jealous teammate (Josh Hartnett). Though the film promised to bring an edge that was missing in the spate of contemporary teen updates of Shakespeare, it was ultimately mishandled by Miramax and sought distribution elsewhere until finally landing at Lionsgate. In the meantime, audiences caught Nelson in another contemporary Shakespeare update, playing a flight captain in Hamlet (2000), starring Ethan Hawke as conflicted heir of Denmark Corp. But it was his next feature, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) that finally put the anonymous Nelson on the map. A Coen Brothers' film loosely based on Homer's The Odyssey, "O Brother" followed a trio of escaped convicts (George Clooney, John Turturro and Nelson) cut across the Depression-era south in search of hidden treasure, while even managing to cut a hit record along the way. Nelson brought irresistible charm and dignity to his portrayal of Delmar, the more wide-eyed and dimwitted of the group, portraying him as an unspoiled innocent rather than a babbling idiot.
After winning affection and attention from "O Brother," Nelson continued playing offbeat characters in films both big and small, including independent director Finn Taylor's quirky Cherish (2002), Miguel Arteta's sensitive The Good Girl (2002), and Steven Spielberg's sci-fi opus Minority Report (2002). But Nelson also effectively switched gears as a filmmaker, adapting his own play to direct the film version of The Grey Zone (2002), starring David Arquette, Harvey Keitel, Mira Sorvino and Steve Buscemi. Nelson had an entertaining turn as Dr. Pendanski in the crowd-pleasing Holes (2003), then played scuzzy small-time drug dealer Billy Deverell, owner of the Wonderland Avenue home in Los Angeles where porn legend John Holmes (Val Kilmer) was allegedly involved in the murder of four people (including Deverell), in the unsatisfying Wonderland (2003). Nelson kept busy with supporting turns in "Scooby Doo 2" (2004), The Last Shot (2004) and Meet the Fockers (2004), while the following year, offered a juicier dramatic role as Tom Loyless, a polio-inflicted newspaper publisher and owner of a top resort that attracts a pre-presidential Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Kenneth Branagh) in the award-winning telepic, "Warm Springs" (HBO, 2005).
After a return to television sketch comedy on "Stella" (Comedy Central, 2005-06) and an appearance as an unsavory neighbor in the indie psychological drama Bereft (), Nelson had a small, but pivotal role as a corrupt Beltway insider in the deft political potboiler, Syriana (2005). Nelson continued his streak of smaller, offbeat movies, landing a supporting role in the romantic drama Come Early Morning (2006), playing a greedy handyman in the family-friendly Hoot (2006), and lending his support to Billy Bob Thornton in The Astronaut Farmer (2007). Following a turn in the zombie horror spoof, Fido (2007), Nelson made a cameo as a choir member in "Lars and the Real Girl" (2007), then provided his voice for Jerry Seinfeld's "Bee Movie" (2007). Despite years spent in indie films that never saw the light of day or in bit roles in larger movies, Nelson finally earned his opportunity to be exposed to a large audience in The Incredible Hulk (2008), playing Samuel Sterns, a chemical plant worker who was exposed to gamma radiation that turned him into a super-intelligent being, The Leader, and becomes the arch-enemy of the Hulk (Edward Norton).
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