Clerow Wilson, Jr. (December 8, 1933 - November 25, 1998), known professionally as Flip Wilson, was an American comedian and actor. In the early 1970s, Wilson hosted his own weekly variety series, The Flip Wilson Show. The series earned Wilson a Golden Globe and two Emmy Awards.

In January 1972, Time magazine featured Wilson's image on their cover and named him "TV's first black superstar".

Early life

Born in Jersey City, New Jersey, he was one of 18 children in an impoverished household. After years of 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 his famous nickname. Discharged 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. He managed to get jobs at various comedy clubs using his nickname, Flip. At first Wilson would simply ad-lib on-stage, but in time, he added written material and his act became more sophisticated.


During the 1960s, Wilson became a regular at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and was a favorite guest on The Tonight Show, Laugh-In, and The Ed Sullivan Show. In 1970, Wilson won a Grammy Award for his comedy album The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress.

The Flip Wilson Show:

A routine titled "Columbus," from the album Cowboys and Colored People, brought Wilson to Hollywood industry attention and would lead to the development of his own television show. In this bit, Wilson re-tells the story of Christopher Columbus from a slightly 'urban' perspective, in which Columbus finally convinces the Spanish monarchs to fund his voyage by noting that discovering America means that he can thus also discover Ray Charles. Hearing this, Queen Isabella, sounding not unlike Wilson's celebrated "Geraldine" character, says that "Chris" can have "all the money you want, honey -- You go find Ray Charles!!" When Columbus departs from the dock, a more than slightly inebriated Isabella is there, testifying to one and all that "Chris gonna find Ray Charles!!" In 1970, Wilson's variety series, The Flip Wilson Show, debuted on NBC. He played host to many African-American entertainers, including The Jackson Five, and The Temptations and performed in comedy sketches. 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 along with him. Wilson's characters included Reverend Leroy, pastor of the 'Church of What's Happening Now', and his most popular character, Geraldine Jones, always referring to boyfriend 'Killer' and whose line "The devil made me do it" became a national expression (frequently the "devil" was pronounced as "debbbbil").

The Flip Wilson Show aired through 1974, generating high ratings and popularity among viewers and winning strong critical acclaim, with an unprecedented 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:

After the end of The Flip Wilson Show, Wilson went on to make guest appearances on numerous TV comedies and variety shows, such as Here's Lucy starring Lucille Ball and The Dean Martin Show among others. Ed Sullivan invited Wilson to perform several times on his popular Sunday night show, and Wilson would later single out Sullivan as providing his biggest career boost. 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 of Pinocchio, starring Sandy Duncan in the title role and Danny Kaye as Mister Geppetto, with songs by Laugh-In composer Billy Barnes.

In 1984, he hosted the remake of People Are Funny. From 1985 to 1986, Wilson played the lead role in the CBS sitcom Charlie & Co.. Wilson's last role was a cameo appearance in the sitcom Living Single in November 1993.

Personal life and death

Wilson was married twice; he married first wife, Lovenia Wilson, in 1957: they divorced in 1967. Then, in 1979, he married Tuanchai MacKenzie. They divorced in 1984. After winning custody of his children in 1979, Wilson performed less in order to spend time with his family. Before becoming ill, he was an active lighter-than-air pilot.

On November 25, 1998, Wilson died of liver cancer in Malibu, California.