Flip Wilson
Comedian, actor, writer
Born: December 8, 1933, in Jersey City, New Jersey
Died: November 25, 1988, in Malibu, California
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2019-20: Performing Arts

Remembered as much for the characters he created as for own his congenial persona, Flip Wilson made entertainment history as the first African-American to star in a successful TV variety series.

Born Clerow Wilson, the future funnyman was one of 18 children. (Some reports say more, some less.) Placed in foster care at age seven after his mother abandoned the family, Wilson eventually ended up in reform school. At 16, he lied about his age and joined the Air Force. While stationed overseas, he began entertaining his Air Force buddies with outlandish stories, earning the nickname “Flip”—as in “flipping out.”

Honorably discharged in 1954, he worked for a time as a bellhop and made extra money playing a drunken patron between regularly scheduled acts at the San Francisco Manor Plaza Hotel. In time, he developed his own act and began touring a circuit of black clubs and theaters. He arrived in New York in the mid-1960s and frequently appeared as a comic and emcee at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

Wilson’s big break came in 1965, when the comedian Redd Foxx touted his work to Johnny Carson, host of “The Tonight Show.” Carson subsequently booked Wilson to appear on the show. Wilson became a “Tonight Show” regular and also made repeated appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and the ground-breaking sketch-comedy series “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.”

After headlining a TV special in 1968, Wilson was given his own variety series in 1970 on NBC. “The Flip Wilson Show” achieved strong ratings throughout its four-season run—during which Wilson often presented the giants of back entertainment, from Aretha Franklin to the Jackson Five. The show also gave Wilson a chance to develop and showcase his own cast of characters, including the Reverend Leroy (pastor of the “Church of What’s Happening Now”) and the flirtatious Geraldine Jones, whom Wilson portrayed in drag. Through Geraldine, Wilson introduced such popular catchphrases as “what you see is what you get”; “the devil made me do it”; and “when you’re hot you’re hot, when you’re not you’re not.”

Although Wilson’s star rose during a politically charged era, he largely kept politics out of his performances. And while the characters in his routines were clearly derived from Wilson’s observations of African-American lives, his humor was universal, and never offensive or threatening to mass audiences.

Wilson won two Emmy Awards for his show; he also won a Grammy Award for his 1970 comedy album, “The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress.” After his show went off the air, he continued to make guest TV appearances and also appeared in several TV and theatrical movies,  most notably “Uptown Saturday Night” and “The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh.”