Comedian Flip Wilson Dies at 64

November 25, 1998

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- In 1970, the news was filled with anti-war demonstrations and black power. On the nation's TV screens, Flip Wilson put on a wig and a minidress and became Geraldine, who screeched: "What you see is what you get!"

He wasn't a spokesman for race issues, but Wilson broke racial barriers, becoming the first black host of a top television variety show.

Wilson died Wednesday, November 25, 1998 of liver cancer at his Malibu home with his daughter, Michelle, by his side, said Angie Hill, the comedian's assistant. He was 64.

Wilson had undergone surgery October 2nd at St. John's Hospital and Health Center in Santa Monica for a malignant tumor that was close to his liver.

The man who gave the world Geraldine and the catch phrase "the devil made me do it!" crossed all lines with his comedy, said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who said he had known the comedian since the 1970s.

"Flip was a breakthrough artist for African-Americans," Jackson said Thursday in a telephone interview. "He led with a brand of comedy that was clean and decent and not vulgar. To the end, he was a man I held in high esteem -- as a comedian and as a person."

Silver Saundors Friedman, owner of The Original New York Improvisation, a comedy club, said, "If you look at the history, there were no black comedians at all back then and the fact that he made it to prime time and stayed there quite a while -- this is inspiring to people who may have been 12, 13 or 14 years old back then."

Wilson was host of "The Flip Wilson Show" on NBC from 1970-74. He dressed in drag to play the wisecracking Geraldine. She was perhaps his most popular character because she did not "put down" women, Wilson once said.

"She's smart, she's trustful, she's loyal, she's sassy," he said.

While other black performers played down their ethnicity, Wilson reveled in characters such as the Rev. Leroy, pastor of the "The Church of What's Happening Now." Wilson said he was based on a preacher he listened to as a child.

"Nobody ever sent him a postcard objecting to any of his humor," comedian Steve Allen told KCBS-TV in Los Angeles. "There was no vulgarity, there was no sleaze, there were no shock jokes. It was just funny."

While television even today is criticized for having too few minorities in front of and behind the camera, Wilson did not complain.

"It would be ridiculous for me to say anything negative regarding blacks having an equal opportunity on TV," he said in 1971. "After all, I was number one in the ratings four times last year and twice this season. What could be more damn equal than that? If they get any more equal, I don't want it."

Clerow Wilson was born into poverty on Dec. 8, 1933, in Jersey City, N.J., and raised in foster homes, quitting school at 16. He served four years in the Air Force, earning the nickname "Flip" for his irreverent humor when he began entertaining troops.

Discharged in 1954, Wilson spent more than a decade working at odd jobs and developing a comedy act in small clubs. When Hollywood began to seek out black entertainers in the 1960s, his career took an upward turn.

Wilson made his TV debut on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" in 1965, which led to frequent appearances on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "Laugh-In" and on comedy series such as "Love, American Style."

A variety special in which he starred led to his own series, which earned him an Emmy for performing and one for writing in 1971. It took competition from a new drama, "The Waltons," to knock Wilson's show down in the ratings and off the air in 1974.

The comedian was divorced about the time his show ended and he won custody of his children.

He reappeared a decade later with two short-lived series: the 1984 quiz show "People Are Funny," for which he was host, and the 1985 CBS sitcom "Charlie & Company," which co-starred singer Gladys Knight.

Out of the limelight in 1993, Wilson said in an interview that he was enjoying recreational and spiritual passions ranging from hot-air ballooning and long ocean cruises to studying the works of philosopher Kahlil Gibran, author of "The Prophet."

Besides his daughter Michelle, he is survived by sons Kevin and David, and daughters Stacey and Tamara.

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