CLASSIC VIDEO SHOWPLACE: Flip Wilson

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As part of RCN’s celebration of Black History Month, we here at the “Showplace” are putting the spotlight on African American actors who excelled not just on the big and small screens but those who also inspired change with their courage and perseverance.

Born Clerow Wilson, Jr. in Jersey City, New Jersey, “Flip” was one of 10 children in his family who spent most of their childhood going from different foster homes.  As a 16- year old, Wilson lied about his age and joined the United States Air Force. His outgoing personality and funny stories made him popular — he was even asked to tour military bases to cheer up other servicemen. Claiming that he was always “flipped out”, Wilson’s barracks mates gave him the nickname “Flip” which he used as his stage name.

Discharged from the Air Force in 1954, Wilson started working as a bellhop in San Francisco’s Manor Plaza Hotel. At the Plaza’s nightclub, Wilson borrowed a technique from a very young Charlie Chaplin by finding extra work playing a drunk patron in between regularly scheduled acts. His inebriated character proved popular and Wilson began performing it in clubs throughout California. At first, Wilson would simply ad-lib onstage, but eventually he added written material and his act became more sophisticated.

Wilson perfected his comedy routines over the next decade, performing in larger and more well-known establishments, as well as landing guest starring appearances on television.

One of Flip Wilson’s funniest guest starring roles was playing the role of “Prissy” in a spoof of Gone with the Wind, opposite Lucille Ball as “Scarlett.”  He also made guest appearances on television’s biggest stages, like The Dean Martin Show, The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

In 1970, Wilson won a Grammy Award for his comedy album “The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress.”  When NBC was looking to capitalize on the variety TV show format, Wilson became an obvious choice to pilot his own program.

The Flip Wilson Show debuted in 1970 and was an instant hit.

In its first year the show catapulted to the top of the Nielsen ratings — finishing as the second most watched overall show during the 1970-71 season.  The series earned Wilson a Golden Globe and two Emmy Awards, and at one point was the second highest rated show on network television. Wilson was the first African American to host a successful TV variety show (the multi-talented Sammy Davis also hosted a variety show in 1966 but the program suffered from poor ratings and was canceled after just one season.)

Probably the most popular character created on the show was Wilson’s portrayal of Geraldine Jones (which was Wilson dressed as a woman). Some of “Geraldine’s” most famous quotes are, “The Devil made me buy this dress!”, “Don’t you touch me, honey, you don’t know me that well! You devil, you!” and “What you see is what you get!”

Wilson also signed many popular singers to provide entertainment. African-American performers appeared on the show, such as Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Charley Pride, Johnny Mathis, Melba Moore, Roberta Flack and groups like The Temptations, The Jackson 5, The Pointer Sisters and The Supremes.

 

Wilson also featured many African American entertainers, ranging from comic great Redd Foxx to basketball legend Bill Russell.

 

Wilson recaptured the magic as the second season of his variety show also finished the year as the number two most-watched show in America.

 

In January 1972, Time magazine featured Wilson’s image on its cover and named him “TV’s first black superstar.”

 

Flip Wilson won one Golden Globe award in 1971 and received two other nominations in 1972 and 1973 for Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series – Comedy or Musical. The Flip Wilson Show received an additional Golden Globe nomination in 1972 for Best Television Series—Comedy or Musical.

 

The show maintained solid viewership numbers for its third year but slipped out of the top 30 during its fourth year and the ratings never recovered.

 

In 1979, Wilson made the decision to cut down on his performance schedule in order to spend quality time with his five children.

 

In 1984, Wilson hosted a revival of the show, People are Funny.  In 1985–1986, Wilson played the lead role in the CBS sitcom, Charlie & Co. Two of his last TV appearances were cameos on the sitcoms Living Single in 1993 and The Drew Carey Show in 1996.

 

Wilson died in 1998 from liver cancer at the much too young age of 64.

 

You can see one of Wilson’s most memorable television guest starring appearances on The Lucy Show on RCN TV.

 

To view the complete rundown of classic programming on RCN TV, check out the weekly listings here on our website.

 

 

 

 

 

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