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On this date in 1933, Flip Wilson was born. He was a Black entertainer and one of the most visible Black comedians of the early 1970s.
He was born in Jersey City, N.J., the tenth of 24 children. Clerow Wilson (his given name) was a troublesome and troubled child in his youth. His family was extremely poor; he ran away from several reform schools and was raised in foster homes. His comedic talents first surfaced while serving in the Air Force overseas. While in the Pacific, Wilson entertained his buddies with preposterous routines. Upon returning to civilian life, he had to settle for a day job as a bellhop and part-time showmanship.
Opportunity found him in 1959 when a Miami businessman sponsored him for one year for $50 per week, enabling him to concentrate on the work he loved. For the next five years, Flip Wilson appeared regularly at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. The Tonight Show was his next stop. In 1965, he began a series of nationwide appearances, followed by long-term contracts and several hit records. With "The Flip Wilson Show" in the early 1970s, he became the first Black to have a weekly prime-time television show under his name.
In 1970, 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!" The man who gave the world Geraldine and the catchphrase, "The devil made me do it!" crossed all lines with his comedy, said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who had known the comedian since the 1970s. "Flip was a breakthrough artist for African Americans,'' Jackson said. "He led with a brand of comedy that was clean and decent and not vulgar."
Wilson made the cover of Time Magazine in 1972 and made his dramatic debut on the Six Million-Dollar Man in 1976. Other television credits included "People Are Funny" (1984) and "Charlie & Co." (1985).
Wilson had undergone surgery on Oct. 2 at St. John's Hospital and Health Center in Santa Monica for a malignant tumor close to his liver. He died on November 25, 1998. He was 64.
African Americans/Voices of Triumph
by Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Copyright 1993, TimeLife Inc.