Flip Wilson was born on December 8, 1933, in Jersey City, New Jersey, one of 18 children. He was placed in foster care at the age of 7, shortly after his mother abandoned the family. Unhappy periods in foster homes followed; after running away more than a dozen times, he was sent to reform school.
At 16, he quit school and, lying about his age, joined the Air Force. His knack for creating outlandish stories and acting them out in crazy dialects led some members of his outfit to conclude that he was ”flipping out”. Soon everyone was calling him Flip. Hence, his stage name was born. His commanding officer, a white, Southern major, persuaded him to resume his studies and take typing courses, and he began writing out some of his comedy material. By the time he was discharged in 1954, he had decided to try to make a living as a comedian.
For the next eight years, Mr. Wilson worked his way across the country, appearing in black clubs and theaters. By the mid-60’s, he had arrived in New York City, where he frequently appeared as a comic and master of ceremonies at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. His big break came in 1965, when he was noted as the funniest comic around.
In 1970, the comedian’s own weekly variety series was launched, The Flip Wilson Show – it was a massive hit. With tens of millions of viewers, the show was No. 2 in the ratings for its first two seasons and showcased a multicultural assembly of guests that included The Fifth Dimension, Aretha Franklin, Dom DeLuise, Tim Conway, Muhammad Ali, Diahann Carroll, Joe Namath and Richard Pryor, among many others.
Mr. Wilson was more of a storyteller than a one-line stand-up comic. His winding tales and uninhibited use of the timbre and resonance of black dialect were often compared to the Yiddish inflections and stories of the comedian Myron Cohen.
Unlike many groundbreaking comedians of his period, Wilson stayed away from politics and social satire. His whimsical fables usually depended on the incongruity of having black characters’ view historic events from their distinct perspective. Mr. Wilson also delighted in telling shaggy dog stories that wound through circuitous asides and ended with unexpected puns and innocuous word play.
In 1971, Wilson garnered an Emmy Award for outstanding achievement in writing while the show itself earned the prize for outstanding variety series – musical. That same year, Wilson picked up a Golden Globe. He had already earned a Grammy Award by this time for his 1970 comedy album, The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress.
The Flip Wilson Show began to slip a bit in ratings with the diminished popularity of variety programming. Nonetheless, it was still in the Top 10 when Wilson left and ended the series in 1974, the same year he co-starred in the Bill Cosby-Sidney Poitier film Uptown Saturday Night. Some reports have said Wilson walked away to avoid his program’s incoming decline. Other reports have maintained that he wanted to devote time to his children.
Mr. Wilson was married and divorced twice. He is survived by his sons Kevin and David, and his daughters Stacy, Tamara and Michelle.
He made headlines in 1981 when he was dropped from a 7-Up advertising campaign after he was arrested and charged with possession of a small amount of cocaine. He returned to television in 1984 as the host of a revival of the old Art Linkletter show ”People Are Funny” and, in 1985, he starred with Gladys Knight in a situation comedy for CBS called ”Charlie and Company”. Neither show matched the success of the Flip Wilson Show.
After the 1980’s, he seldom performed except for occasional guest spots on various sitcoms. He lived quietly, out of the public eye, at his Malibu home.
Flip Wilson’s enduring contribution may have been the reintroduction of a distinctively black voice to mainstream comedy. Wilson died from liver cancer on November 25, 1998, in Malibu, California.