Flip Wilson

Clerow "Flip" Wilson Jr. (December 8, 1933 – November 25, 1998) was an American comedian and actor best known for his television appearances during the late 1960s and the 1970s. From 1970 to 1974, Wilson hosted his own weekly variety series, The Flip Wilson Show, and introduced viewers to his recurring character Geraldine. The series earned Wilson a Golden Globe and two Emmy Awards, and at one point was the second highest rated show on network television.[1] Wilson was the first African American to host a successful TV variety show.[1][lower-alpha 1] In January 1972, Time magazine featured Wilson's image on its cover and named him "TV's first black superstar".[2]

Flip Wilson
Wilson in 1969
Birth nameClerow Wilson Jr.
Born(1933-12-08)December 8, 1933
Jersey City, New Jersey, U.S.
DiedNovember 25, 1998(1998-11-25) (aged 64)
Malibu, California, U.S.
MediumStand-up, television, film
Years active1963–1997
Lavenia Patricia "Peaches" Wilson Dean
(m. 1957; div. 1967)

Tuanchai "Cookie" MacKenzie
(m. 1979; div. 1984)
Notable works and rolesThe Flip Wilson Show

Wilson released a number of comedy albums in the 1960s and 1970s, and won a Grammy Award for his 1970 album The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress.[3][lower-alpha 2]

After The Flip Wilson Show ended, Wilson kept performing and acting until the 1990s, though at a reduced schedule. He hosted a short-lived revival of People are Funny in 1984, and had the lead role in the 1985–1986 sitcom Charlie & Co.

Early life

Born Clerow Wilson Jr. in Jersey City, New Jersey, he was one of ten children born to Cornelia Bullock and Clerow Wilson Sr.[4][5] His father worked as a handyman but, because of the Great Depression, was often out of work. When Wilson was seven years old, his mother abandoned the family. His father was unable to care for the children alone and he placed many of them in foster homes.[4]

After bouncing from foster homes to reform school, 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 found extra work playing a drunken 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.


In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Wilson toured regularly through nightclubs with a black clientele in the so-called "Chitlin' Circuit".[1] During the 1960s, Wilson became a regular at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. An unexpected break came in 1965, when comedian Redd Foxx was a guest on The Tonight Show and host Johnny Carson asked him who the funniest comedian at the time was; Foxx answered, "Flip Wilson".[1] Carson then booked Wilson to appear on The Tonight Show, and Wilson became a favorite guest on that show, as well as on The Ed Sullivan Show. Wilson later singled out Sullivan as providing his biggest career boost. Wilson also made guest appearances on numerous TV comedies and variety shows, such as Here's Lucy (in which he played the role of "Prissy" in a spoof of Gone with the Wind, with Lucille Ball as Scarlett),[6] and The Dean Martin Show, among others.

Wilson's warm and ebullient personality was infectious. Richard Pryor told Wilson, "You're the only performer that I've ever seen who goes on the stage and the audience hopes that you like them."

A routine titled "Columbus", from the 1967 album Cowboys and Colored People, brought Wilson to Hollywood industry attention. In this bit, Wilson retells the story of Christopher Columbus from an anachronistic urbanized viewpoint, in which Columbus convinces the Spanish monarchs to fund his voyage by noting that discovering America means that he can also discover Ray Charles. Hearing this, Queen "Isabel Johnson", whose voice is an early version of Wilson's eventual "Geraldine" character, says that "Chris" can have "all the money you want, honey – You go find Ray Charles!" When Columbus departs from the dock, an inebriated Isabella is there, testifying to one and all that "Chris gonna find Ray Charles!"

In 1970, Wilson won a Grammy Award for his comedy album The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress. He was also a regular cast member on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. DePatie-Freleng Enterprises featured Wilson in two TV specials, Clerow Wilson and the Miracle of P.S. 14 and Clerow Wilson's Great Escape.

The Flip Wilson Show

In 1970 Wilson's variety series, The Flip Wilson Show, debuted on NBC. He performed in comedy sketches and played host to many African-American entertainers, including the Supremes, the Jackson Five, the Temptations, Gladys Knight & the Pips, comedian Redd Foxx, and basketball player Bill Russell. He greeted all his guests with the "Flip Wilson Handshake": four hand slaps, two elbow bumps, finishing with two hip-bumps. George Carlin was one of the show's writers, and Carlin also made frequent appearances on the show, as the two would expand Carlin's news-weather-sports satire. Wilson's characters included Reverend Leroy, the materialistic pastor of the "Church of What’s Happening Now", and his most popular character, Geraldine Jones, who frequently referred to her unseen boyfriend, "Killer", and whose lines "The devil made me do it" as well as "What you see is what you get" became national catchphrases.

The Flip Wilson Show aired through 1974, generating high ratings and popularity among viewers and winning strong critical acclaim, with eleven Emmy Award nominations during its run, winning two. Wilson also won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Television Series.

Later years

Wilson acted in TV and theatrical movies including Uptown Saturday Night and The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh. In 1976, he appeared as the Fox in a television musical adaptation Pinocchio, starring Sandy Duncan in the title role and Danny Kaye as Mister Geppetto, with songs by Laugh-In composer Billy Barnes.[7]

From March–July 1984, Wilson hosted a revival of People are Funny. From 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.[8]

Personal life

Wilson was married twice. In 1957, he married Lavenia Patricia "Peaches" Wilson (née Dean); they divorced in 1967. He had four children with his common-law wife Blonell Pitman.[9] After winning custody of his five children in 1979, Wilson performed less, in order to spend more time with his family.[1] In 1979 he married Tuanchai "Cookie" MacKenzie with whom he had one child; they divorced in 1984.

In March of 1981, it was reported that Flip was busted at the Los Angeles International airport with $1,000 of cocaine.

Before becoming ill, he was an active lighter-than-air pilot.[1]

On November 25, 1998, Wilson died from liver cancer in Malibu, California, aged 64.[1] His cremated remains were interred at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery.


  • 1961 – Flippin' (Minit 24012)
  • 1964 – Flip Wilson's Pot Luck (Scepter 520, reissued as Funny and Live at the Village Gate, Springboard SP 4004)
  • 1967 – Cowboys and Colored People (Atlantic ATS 8149)
  • 1968 – You Devil You (Atlantic SC 8179)
  • 1970 – The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress (Little David LD 1000)
  • 1970 – The Flip Wilson Show (Little David LD 2000)
  • Geraldine (Little David LD 1001)
  • Flipped Out (Sunset Records SUS-5297)

Wilson popularized the phrase "The devil made me do it." The catchphrase "What you see is what you get", often used by Wilson's Geraldine character, inspired researchers at PARC (and elsewhere) to create the acronym WYSIWYG for computer software.[10]

See also


  1. Sammy Davis Jr. had hosted a short-lived variety show in 1966.
  2. Some sources, including Wilson's New York Times obituary, erroneously state that Wilson won his Grammy in 1968 for his album Flip Wilson You Devil You.


  1. Watkins, Mel (November 27, 1998). "Flip Wilson, outrageous comic and TV host, dies at 64". Obituary. The New York Times. Archived from the original on January 11, 2010. Retrieved April 1, 2017.
  2. "Flip Wilson". time.com. January 31, 1972. Retrieved 10 June 2010.
  3. "Flip Wilson". Past Grammys Winners. Grammy.com. The Recording Academy. Archived from the original on April 1, 2017. Retrieved April 1, 2017.
  4. Tafoya, Eddie M. (2011). Icons of African American Comedy. ABC-CLIO. p. 89. ISBN 0-313-38085-6.
  5. Pierce, Ponchitta (April 1968). "All flip over Flip". Ebony. Vol. 23 no. 6. Johnson Publishing Company. p. 65. ISSN 0012-9011.
  6. "episode "Lucy and Flip go legit"". IMDb. Here's Lucy. 1971.
  7. Pinocchio (1976) on IMDb
  8. Fearn-Banks, Kathleen (2006). "Wilson, Flip (1933–1998)". The Historical Dictionary of African-American Television. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press. Archived from the original on March 17, 2017. Retrieved April 1, 2017.
  9. "Flip Wilson". IMDb. biography.
  10. Lohr, Steve (2001). Go To. Basic Books. p. 128. ISBN 0-465-04226-0 via Google Books.


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