Flip Wilson, the first black host of a highly rated television variety show and a gifted comic who created “Geraldine” and other humorous characters, died Wednesday night of liver cancer at his Malibu home. He was 64.
Wilson had undergone surgery last month for a malignant tumor that was close to his liver.
“The Flip Wilson Show” aired on NBC from 1970 to 1974. During its first two seasons, the show placed No. 2 among all programs on television. Wilson also won two Emmys and made the cover of Time magazine in 1971.
He combined storytelling and jokes on his show, but he ultimately became best known for the characters he created. The most enduring was the sassy, brazen Geraldine Jones, whose favorite topic was her jealous boyfriend, “Killer.” As Geraldine, in wig, high heels and mini-dress, Wilson coined phrases that became part of the national pop vocabulary, such as “The devil made me do it,” and, “What you see is what you get!”
“The secret of my success with Geraldine is that she’s not a put-down of women,” he once said. “She’s smart, she’s trustful, she’s loyal, she’s sassy. Most drag impersonations are a drag. But women can like Geraldine, men can like Geraldine, everyone can like Geraldine.”
Other characters he created on the show included the Rev. Leroy of the Church of What’s Happening Now, who was based on a preacher he listened to as a child, and Herbie, the surly Good Time ice cream man.
His humor was rarely political, but in interviews he spoke of his admiration for black politicians such as Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes and Georgia legislator Julian Bond.
Wilson topped the comedy world during the late 1960s and early 1970s with his successful albums, concerts and television appearances. But he assumed a lower profile after his show went off the air in 1974. Much of the news about him in recent years revolved around difficulties in his personal life, which included lawsuits by former live-in lovers seeking financial support and a highly publicized arrest for drug possession in 1981 at Los Angeles International Airport. The California Supreme Court later ruled that the evidence was obtained illegally.
Clerow Wilson was born into poverty on Dec. 8, 1933, in Jersey City, N.J., and was raised in foster homes. He quit school at 16 and served four years in the Air Force. His impromptu performances before other airmen gave him the confidence to consider a career as a comic.
He earned the nickname “Flip” for his irreverent humor when he began entertaining the troops.
In 1954, Wilson was discharged in San Francisco and became a bellhop. One night, he convinced the hotel manager to let him play a drunk during the wardrobe changes of the hotel’s main act.
He then spent more than a decade working at odd jobs and developing a comedy act in small clubs. He eventually got bookings at New York’s Apollo Theater and headlining engagements in Miami Beach and Las Vegas.
When Hollywood began to seek black entertainers in the ‘60s, his career took an upward turn. Wilson made his TV debut on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” in 1965, and that led to frequent appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “Laugh-In” and on comedy series including “Love, American Style.”
A variety special in which he starred in September 1968 led to his own series.
Wilson recently told a Times reporter that the biggest reason he walked away from the hectic pace of his career after his show ended was to devote more time to his children.
For the next decade, he worked only 20 weeks a year, mainly at nightclubs and conventions.
In 1984, he tried television again as the host on a revival of the quiz show “People Are Funny.” The next year, he co-starred on CBS’ sitcom “Charlie & Company.” Both shows were short-lived.
He is survived by sons Kevin and David, and daughters Stacey, Tamara and Michelle.
Associated Press contributed to this story.