Clerow Wilson, Jr., was born December 8, 1933 in Jersey City, New Jersey into a family of 18 children. After early years in foster homes and a reform school, 16-yr-old Wilson fibbed about his age and entered the US Air Force.
The young serviceman’s bubbly personality and outgoing manner earned him the nickname “Flip”, short for “Flipped out!” After discharge from the Air Force in 1954, Flip began working as a bellhop at the Manor Plaza Hotel in San Francisco where he eventually found comedic fill-in work between acts.
By the 1960s Flip had perfected his act, performing regularly at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem. Stardom beckoned and Flip began booking slots on TV staples such as The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show.
In 1970 Flip scored a Grammy Award for his comedy album The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress and launched The Flip Wilson Show on NBC. The hour-long variety show was a break-out success, airing from September 17, 1970 until June 27, 1974, leading Time magazine to place Flip on its cover and dub him “TV’s First Black Superstar.”
Flip is best-known for his characters Geraldine Jones (a feisty Wilson in drag), the outrageous Reverend Leroy (Pastor of the “Church of What’s Happening Now”) and lovable everyman, Freddie Johnson. The sight of Flip’s name spelled out in flashing lights from the show’s opening is forever etched in the minds of 70s TV watchers, as is the Flip handshake, which involved greeting each guest on the show with a series of hand, elbow and hip bumps.
One of the writers on Flip’s show was comedian George Carlin, who appeared in sketches on numerous occasions. Wilson also featured a great number of exceptional musical guests such as James Brown, Louis Armstrong and The Jackson 5.
Other notable 1970s Flip Wilson TV appearances included 1972’s animated Clerow Wilson and the Miracle of P.S. 14, and The Six Million Dollar Man (’76). Film appearances included 1974’s Uptown Saturday Night and 1979’s The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh. Flip passed away at age 64 on November 25, 1998.
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