Wilson would become the first black entertainer to headline a successful variety show on network television. In 1971, he took the Emmy Awards for outstanding writing achievement for a variety show and outstanding variety program. He also appeared on the cover of Time magazine, which called him “TV’s First Black Superstar.” His show, which employed George Carlin and Richard Pryor as writers, was the highest-rated variety show, and it was second in overall ratings only to “All in the Family.”
It was a big achievement for Wilson, who had a rough start as one of 18 children. He was placed in foster care at age 7 when his mother abandoned the family, according to his obituary in The New York Times. By age 13, he was sent to live with his father, who was often unemployed. Three years later, Wilson quit school and joined the Air Force. During his service, Wilson began writing out his comedy material, and by the time he was discharged in 1954, he had decided to become a comedian.
The late Flip Wilson (shown here in a scene with NFL Hall of Famer Joe Namath) caused a nationwide sensation when he played the sassy character "Geraldine" on "The Flip Wilson Show" in the 1970s.
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While Wilson’s humor was deeply rooted in black culture, he believed comedy was colorless. He avoided politics, relying mostly on humorous storytelling that included a funny turn of phrase or an unexpected viewpoint. His approach earned him both fans and detractors, but Wilson once said he mostly only cared about being funny.
He released seven comedy albums from 1964-1996, including 1970’s “The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress,” which won a Grammy. Wilson ended his variety show while he was still on top and went on to appear in several comedy specials and movies, most notably 1974’s “Uptown Saturday Night,” which starred Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte.
At the start of the new decade, Wilson, who by then had a net worth of $5 million, had some legal issues. In 1981, he was charged with drug possession when Los Angeles narcotics agents seized his briefcase and found small amounts of cocaine and hashish. The evidence was later suppressed as it was deemed to have been seized illegally, according to a 1983 news story in the AJC.
Flip Wilson, seen here in 1986, became the first successful black host of a television variety show with the debut of “The Flip Wilson Show” in 1970, which featured characters such as Geraldine and the Rev. Leroy. REED SAXON / ASSOCIATED PRESS
Wilson, who lived in Malibu, California, spent much of the '80s avoiding the spotlight and indulging his hobby of flying in hot air balloons. In 1984, he hosted the revival of "People Are Funny" — a show that offered prizes to contestants who carried out stunts. The following year, he starred with singer Gladys Knight in "Charlie & Co.," a one-season sitcom with Wilson as the patriarch of a middle-class family on the South Side of Chicago.
Married and divorced twice, Wilson had five children who survived him when he died in 1998 from liver cancer at age 64. More than a decade earlier, he had passed the torch to another comedian just as Foxx had passed it to him. “Once every 10 or 15 years, a rare comedian comes along, and right now, that’s him,” Wilson told writer Bob Wisehart in 1984. He was talking about Eddie Murphy.
BLACK HISTORY MONTH
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