Flip Wilson Biography

Flip Wilson, biography of the man who found his name and talent in the Air Force, where he signed on at age 16. Becoming the first ever successful African American TV host, Flip Wilson made history in America.

Clerow Wilson was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, on December 8, 1933. One of 18 children born to a poor household, Wilson acted out early and spent many years being raised in foster homes as a result. After running away repeatedly, Wilson was sent to reform school. When reform school failed, he was sent back to Jersey City and replaced in a foster home.

Tired of bouncing around, 16 year old Wilson lied about his age, and enlisted in the Air Force. Wilson excelled in the Air Force and bonded with his fellow servicemen, who encouraged his lively, offhanded personality. Officers ate up Wilson's jokes, stories and realistic impressions, all of which would earn him his legendary name, "Flip," after someone told him he had a flipped out sense of humor. Wilson's routine was so well loved in the Service, he was asked to travel on a tour of other bases on a morale-boosting mission, which he proudly accepted.

Flip Wilson left the Air Force in 1954, at the age of 21. He found work as a bellhop by day at a San Francisco hotel and practiced his comic routine by night. After much pleading, Wilson earned an audition at the hotel, debuting his act during an intermission between nightclub performances. Wilson bounced from job to job, performing at comedy clubs every night for years.

In 1959, after hearing his show, a Florida businessman agreed to sponsor Wilson. Wilson agreed to quit all other jobs and concentrate on perfecting his routine. He was paid $50 a week to work on his act, and play various California clubs. Within a few years, Wilson was a regular at Harlem's Apollo Theatre and his first comedy album was already in the making.

As his name traveled the comedy circuit and his reputation preceded him, Wilson was invited in 1965 appear on "The Tonight Show," as Johnny Carson's guest. He was a huge success and almost instantly developed a national following. For the next several years, he made regular appearances on Rowan and Martin's "Laugh-In," "The Ed Sullivan Show," and "Love, American Style."

The "Flip Wilson Show" debuted in 1970, and was an instant hit. Wilson's characters "Rev. Leroy" and "Geraldine Jones" became common household names and Wilson was catapulted into the spotlight. During that same year, he won a Grammy in the Best Comedy Recording category for his album, "The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress," a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Television Series, and two Emmy's, for The Flip Wilson Show. Flip Wilson was the first ever successful black host of a TV variety show.

Wilson's show was a hit for 4 years running, staying on top of the charts as the second most popular series. Outdone by the newly introduced, "The Waltons," the "Flip Wilson Show" was canceled and went off the air for good in 1974. Hoping to make the jump to film, Wilson appeared in "Uptown Saturday Night" later that year, delivering a well regarded performance.

Wilson dropped out of the spotlight almost as quickly as he had popped into it. For 5 years, he made minor appearances, but mostly, left Hollywood behind him. Divorced from his wife at the same time his show ended, Wilson had won custody of his children, and spent most of his time at home, raising his family as a single father.

Attempting to make a comeback, Wilson appeared in two films in 1979, "Skatetown, USA" and "The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh." Neither were considered box office hits. In 1984, Wilson landed the television show, "People Are Funny." It, too, was deemed unsuccessful. The following year, "Charlie and Co." co-starring Gladys Knight, hit the airwaves and for two years, the show's ratings kept Wilson's name in lights. When it went off the air in 1986, so did Flip Wilson.

Wilson died of liver cancer in Malibu, California on November 25, 1998. He was 64 years old. Wilson is survived by his ex-wife, Cookie Mackenzie, and five children.

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