Comedian Flip Wilson, the first black to host a successful weekly variety series for a network, died Wednesday of liver cancer at his Malibu home. He was 64.
Wilson had undergone surgery Oct. 2 at St. John’s Hospital & Health Center in Santa Monica for a malignant tumor that was close to his liver.
The man whose most famous creation was an outspoken, liberated black woman named Geraldine, rose slowly through the comedy ranks, barely eking out an existence for many years. But after appearances on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” and “The Ed Sullivan Show,” he was ubiquitous on the small screen and nightclubs for more than a decade, selling millions of comedy albums in the process.
His NBC variety show ran from September 1970 through June 1974 and in the process he won two Emmys and landed on the cover of Time magazine in 1971. Then, having owned half of “The Flip Wilson Show” and invested his money wisely, Wilson largely retired, returning intermittently to try out series television.
While not overtly political in his humor like Dick Gregory, bawdy like Redd Foxx, or even genteel like Bill Cosby, Wilson’s humor had elements of all these men, who were roughly contemporaries. Unlike Gregory, Wilson often dealt with the sting of racism by subterfuge — using the American Indians as surrogates (“Do you want to buy a $50,000 split-level and have some Indian put up a wigwam next to it?”)
He had an outrageous attitude similar to Foxx (but using much milder language). He advanced black humor by infusing his work with much more street attitude than Cosby — most famously finger snapping, with his ‘tude-heavy backwards-and-forwards stride, and the indelible phrase “The devil made me do it,” which became a part of the American vernacular.
While the TV series featured other regular characters such as Rev. Leroy of the Church of What’s Happening Now, Wilson became most famous for Geraldine. The character was nobody’s fool, known for such phrases as “Don’t you push me, don’t you ever push me!” and her hopeless devotion to her beau, Killer.
Clerow Wilson was probably born in Jersey City in 1933, the tenth of a family of as many as 24 children (numbers and dates over the years have been inconsistent). Due to the extreme poverty of his family, he spent his childhood in foster homes and reformatories, though it’s difficult to say how many or when.
Wilson claims that he lied about his age to join the United States Air Force, where he spent four years, and acquired the name Flip from his barracks mates (as in “flipped out,” he claimed). He was discharged in 1954 and took a job as a bellhop in the Manor Plaza Hotel in San Francisco, filling in as an entertainer (as a drunk who happens to wander onstage) during act breaks at the hotel nightclub. He continued performing this character and adding written material to his ad-libs at various California clubs, and started to create a timetable for himself as a performer.
The 1950s were not a particularly hospitable time for black performers, and he barely subsisted in low-paying gigs and low-rent clubs. He acquired a benefactor, a Miami businessman, in 1959, and soon after was a regular at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem.
Thanks to the older, more established Foxx, Wilson came to the attention of Johnny Carson. At Foxx’s urging, Wilson was booked on the show in August 1965, and later became a frequent guest and occasional substitute host. On “Tonight,” the American public got its first taste of Wilson’s humor with a sketch in which Christopher Columbus beseeches Queen Isabella to finance his trip to the new world so he can find Ray Charles.
A booking on “The Ed Sullivan Show” followed, and soon Wilson was everywhere during the heyday of comedy/variety shows on television: Merv Griffin, Joey Bishop, “Laugh-In,” etc. The club dates became classier and higher paying (the Hungry I, the Bitter End, the Village Gate). Successful comedy albums like “Cowboys and Colored People,” “Flippin,” “Flip Wilson” and “You Devil You” were released and he was signed by NBC to an exclusive contract.
After capturing audiences in TV specials, he debuted the show that ran for four seasons. Wilson later claimed he left the show to help raise his four children (he divorced their mother after a 10-year marriage in 1967), but there were rumors of nervous breakdowns and other troubles like palimony problems. He and his nephew Rashon were arrested with 2.5 grams of cocaine, some hashish and marijuana at LAX in 1981, but the California Supreme Court in 1983 threw out the case based on Fourth Amendment rights against illegal seizure.
He continued to perform in clubs, and tried his hand at TV again in 1984 with “People Are Funny” and the following year with “Charlie & Co.,” neither of which lasted.
Then in the late ’90s, thanks to cable and the nostalgia for vintage TV series, “The Flip Wilson Show” resurfaced in reruns, and brought his comedy to a new generation of television viewers, as well as renewed appreciation for his place in the spectrum of black performers.
When he was honored in 1993 by the Los Angeles County Museum, he said he was busy racing hot air balloons, taking ocean cruises and studying the works of Kahlil Gibran. “I’ve grown up, I’ve matured. I’ve made a transition to where I really want to be,” he told the LA Times.
Wilson is survived by sons Kevin and David, and daughters Stacey, Tamara and Michelle.
Memorial services are pending.