As far as office space on the A&M-Commerce campus goes, Noah Nelson can’t complain.
As the Director of Media Relations for the university, Nelson works out of his own spacious office in the President’s area in the McDowell Building. His work often puts him in direct correspondence with President Jones, and it also places him in the conversation most times the president corresponds with the media. Just earlier this year, in between discussions about Jones’ future plans for the university, we all took the time to break down our favorite music from my love of Guns N’ Roses and Aerosmith to Jones’ fondness of old-school Country hitmakers, to Nelson’s affinity for smooth jazz.
But today, I’m talking with Nelson about a very different topic, himself.
As I walk into his office and take a seat opposite Nelson’s multi-piece desk, I take a look at the sizable HDTV mounted on the wall dialed to MSNBC before noticing two notable items placed conspicuously next to each other on Nelson’s desk. They don’t appear to have anything in common at first; one is a picture of Nelson interviewing former president Ronald Reagan and the other is a figurine of a ridiculously proportioned Japanese man with his hair in a bun. But both items hold special importance to the man behind the desk.
It’s hard to meet Nelson and not become immediately aware of one of his most prominent features: his voice. His deep, dulcet tones resonate in a way that few can match, and he’s used that as a tool throughout his career which began in broadcast journalism. After graduating from our own A&M-Commerce (then East Texas State University), Nelson became a daily radio show host in Dallas in the late ’70s, one that often featured call-in guests including one particularly notorious example.
“This one lady that called in regularly was a leading member of a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan,” Nelson said with a laugh. “Of course, she had no idea that I was a black man. But then one day the network decided to put up some billboards of each of the radio hosts along the highway. I got a call from her live on the show pretty quickly after that and she said ‘You didn’t tell me you were a ni—-!’ to which I responded ‘well you didn’t tell me that you were ugly!'”
But even as Nelson weathered some venomous reminders of the Jim Crow South, his career also provided him opportunities he had only dreamed of as a child. During a campaign stop in 1980, then presidential candidate Ronald Reagan sat down with Nelson, a monumental moment that was immortalized with the picture frame on Nelson’s desk.
“When I was a child, [Nixon’s] Watergate scandal was huge in the news,” Nelson explained. “I remember thinking to myself that I wanted to grow up and become a journalist myself so that I could do my part to keep our country’s leaders accountable.”
While Nelson prepared for a hard-hitting interview with Reagan, however, by the time he left an hour later, he realized that he had barely scratched the surface of what he’d wanted to get to.
“That’s a trait that all of the best politicians have,” Nelson admits with a smile. “They have a way of putting you off guard and charming you to the point that you can’t help but make friends with them.”
But even if the final interview wasn’t as politically charged as Nelson had initially hoped, he says that the picture on his desk still fills him with a sense of pride.
“When I see that photograph, I get emotional,” Nelson says. “The fact that a young man who grew up without a lot of money in Northeast Texas could interview a president is what makes this country so great.”
Years later, after becoming a national correspondent for NBC News, Nelson encountered Reagan again who, unprompted, turned back to Nelson after passing him, pointed and said “Dallas, Texas.”
“It was a really cool moment,” Nelson says with a smile.
After working as an NBC correspondent for over a decade, Nelson decided he was ready for a change of pace. While he’d used his voice admirably for years as a broadcast journalist, his friends and family kept telling him that he could do more with it. Eventually, he hired an agent and got cast in a new animated series Jackie Chan Adventures featuring the titular action movie star and his cousin Stacie as the main characters. Nelson played main character Tohru, a gigantic titan of a man that initially served as one of the show’s main antagonists before ultimately having a change of heart.
“Tohru was a bad guy at first,” Nelson says with a laugh. “But the showrunners and audience got so attached to him that he ended up becoming one of the main good guys.”
Jackie Chan Adventures was broadcast daily on Warner Bros’ WB Network station and ended up being quite successful; the show ran for five seasons with 95 total episodes from 2000 through 2005, a span that gave the voice cast more than enough time to get comfortable with one another and lead to a fair bit of improv that made it into the episodes.
“That is some of the most fun I’ve ever had,” Nelson says. “We got so comfortable in our roles and with each other, that we would just make stuff up and they would end up using it.”
When Jackie Chan Adventures finally did come to an end, Nelson’s agent started getting him into casting calls for video game characters, as well, which ended up being a particularly rich vein of work for him. He landed a number of significant rolls in some notable titles including Cunningham in Metal Gear Solid Portable Ops, and Blackout in the 2007 Transformers video game. But nothing could prepare him for what he stepped into when he landed the role of the male orc in one of the biggest video games ever released: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Nelson ended up voicing every single male orc in the entire game, an entire race that encompassed a wide range of roles from common bandits to harsh military leaders to mystical librarians.
“I spent countless hours in that studio,” Nelson says. “I was constantly battling with myself between trying to sound too gruff and mean and trying to sound like I was a bit more sophisticated. It was fun, but man was it hard work.”
When I casually mention to Nelson that I killed him multiple times in a Skyrim play session the night before and particularly appreciated his forceful “NEUGHH!” as my blade slid through his chest he just laughed.
“Hey, man that was your choice! It says more about you than it does me.”
While Nelson’s days of voice acting are mostly behind him now (though he does appear occasionally as recurring character Kee-oth in the Cartoon Network animated series Adventure Time) it’s a slice of his life that he will always be a part of him, even if his work as Director of Media Relations relies much more on his history as a broadcast journalist than as a voice actor. But as I glanced back at the figure of Tohru next to Nelson’s picture with Reagan before passing back under the visage of Andrea Mitchell on the television, I walked away reminded of what I already knew; the man behind the desk is at least as interesting and entertaining as the characters and roles that he has portrayed on the screen.