Born on on December 8, 1933, in Jersey City, New Jersey, Flip Wilson worked across the country as a comedian before garnering fame on programs like The Tonight Show and Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. His own variety series The Flip Wilson Show launched in 1970 and was a massive, award-winning hit. The show ended in '74, with Wilson opting to stay out of the spotlight. He died in California on November 25, 1998.
The comedian who would be known as Flip Wilson was born Clerow Wilson on December 8, 1933, in Jersey City, New Jersey. Wilson was one of many children, with he and several of his siblings abandoned by their mother during Wilson's youth. He was subsequently in and out of foster care and was sent to a reform institution before lying about his age and joining the U.S. Air Force at the age of 16. He became known for his stand-out humor, which would cause fellow personnel to think he was "flipping out." Hence his stage name was born.
Upon leaving the Air Force, Wilson did comedy at a hotel he worked at and then performed across the country for primarily African-American audiences, eventually coming to work as emcee at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem. After getting an unequivocal endorsement from fellow comedian Redd Foxx, Wilson appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and later was featured on programs like The Ed Sullivan Show and Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In.
Award-Winning Hit Variety Show
In 1970, the comedian's own weekly variety series was launched, The Flip Wilson Show, and it was a massive hit. With tens of millions of viewers, the show was No. 2 in the ratings for its first two seasons and showcased a multicultural assembly of guests that included The Fifth Dimension, Aretha Franklin, Dom DeLuise, Tim Conway, Muhammad Ali, Diahann Carroll and Joe Namath, among many others.
The series, which had George Carlin and Richard Pryor on board as writers, was also known for items like the groovy Flip Wilson handshake and his character Herbie, the Good Time Ice Cream Man. The gender bending persona Wilson became best known for was firecracker Geraldine Jones, a flirtatious and full of life woman who had trademark lines like, "What you see is what you get!"
In 1971 Wilson garnered an Emmy Award for outstanding achievement in writing while the show itself earned the prize for outstanding variety series - musical. That same year, Wilson picked up a Golden Globe. He had already earned a Grammy Award by this time for his 1970 comedy album, The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress.
The Flip Wilson Show began to slip a bit in ratings with the diminished popularity of variety programming. Nonetheless it was still in the Top 10 when Wilson left and ended the series in 1974, the same year he co-starred in the Bill Cosby-Sidney Poitier film Uptown Saturday Night. Some reports have said Wilson walked away to avoid his program's incoming decline, with Wilson and other reports having maintained that he wanted to devote time to his children.
Out of Spotlight
Wilson remained mostly out of the spotlight in the ensuing decades. He hosted Saturday Night Live in 1983, and also starred in the short-lived shows People Are Funny (1984) and Charlie and Company (1985), the latter with Gladys Knight. Over the years Wilson was also known to have struggled with drug and alcohol abuse.
Wilson died from liver cancer on November 25, 1998, in Malibu, California. A biography on the comedian's life—Flip: The Inside Story of TV's First Black Superstar by Kevin Cook—was published in 2013.
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