Dick Wilson, Prolific Character Actor

As we wind up “They Call Me Wilson,” I think I’ve saved the best for last.  If you watched television between 1956 and 1989 you will be very familiar with this entertainer.  He had a prolific career and appeared on so many amazing television programs.

Photo: bewitchedwiki.cm

Dick Wilson was born Riccardo DiGuglielmo in 1916 in Lancashire, England. That same year, the family moved to Ontario, Canada. Not much is known about his early life, but at age 15 he began working as an announcer at CHML, a local radio station. He graduated from the Ontario College of Art and Design where he studied sculpture. He became a comedic acrobatic dancer and performed in vaudeville for two decades. He followed his parents’ footsteps; his father was a minstrel vaudeville performer, and his mother was a singer.

He served in the Royal Canadian Airforce during WWII. In 1954 he moved to California and became an American citizen. He received his first television role in 1956 and would continue to receive offers until he retired 35 years later.

In 1957, he married Meg Brown and they would be married until his death from natural causes in 2007.

The first role he was offered was in 1956 on a Man Called X. This was an interesting show about agent Ken Thurston (Barry Sullivan) who went by the code name X. He took on dangerous cases in exotic locations all over the world for the Intelligence Bureau.

Not surprisingly many of the shows he was on in the fifties were westerns, since they dominated the air waves in that decade. He can be seen on The Adventures of Jim Bowie, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, Wagon Train, The Texan, Cimarron City, and Tales of West Fargo. He also appeared on dramas including I Led Three Lives, Official Detective, Jane Wyman Presents, Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, Not for Hire, and The Untouchables.

Jack Arnold's The Tattered Dress (1957) "When I spill a drink on the  carpet, my butler cleans up after me." "When you spill blood, your lawyer  is expected to do the same." "

It was also during this decade he received his first big screen role. He appeared as a jury foreman in The Tattered Dress, a mystery in 1957. He would go on to get credits in 23 additional movies including The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966) and The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968), both with Don Knotts, and Caprice (1967) with Doris Day and Richard Harris.

During the 1960s, we saw him everywhere; he appeared on 63 different shows and often appeared on the same show as different characters. He continued his western appearances on shows including Maverick, The Rifleman, Bat Masterson, Death Valley Days, and The Virginian.

Photo: theriflemanepisodeguide.com

We also see in him dramatic roles on M Squad, The Law and Mr. Jones, Perry Mason, Route 66, Ben Casey, The Twilight Zone, and The Fugitive.

Sitcoms definitely kept him employed. In the early sixties, he can be seen in Bachelor Father, The Bob Cummings Show, The Farmer’s Daughter, The Jack Benny Show, and Hazel. The mid sixties found him on The Bob Hope Show, My Favorite Martian, Gomer Pyle, Donna Reed, Gidget, The Monkees, My Mother the Car, and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies. As the sixties wound down, he kept busy on My Three Sons, Petticoat Junction, The Flying Nun, The Carol Burnett Show, That Girl, Get Smart, Mayberry RFD, I Dream of Jeannie, Room 222, and The Bill Cosby Show.

Dick Wilson Pictures | People | Sunshine Factory | Monkees Fan Site
Wilson with The Monkees Photo: thesunshinefactory.com

From 1963-1966, Wilson was offered his second permanent role for a television series. He appeared as Dino Barroni on McHale’s Navy.

Three of his most successful roles began in the mid sixties and continued for much longer. Wilson appeared on Bewitched for the first time in 1965. However, he would be featured on that show 18 times before 1972 as eighteen different characters. This means he was on the show more than regular cast members Paul Lynde, Maurice Evans, and Alice Ghostley. He often received the role of the “local drunk” on various sitcoms, but he abstained from alcohol for his entire life.

BEWITCHED ELIZABETH MONTGOMERY DICK YORK DICK WILSON 1967 ABC TV PHOTO  NEGATIVE | eBay
With Dick York and Elizabeth Montgomery Photo: ebay.com

In 1966 he began appearing on Hogan’s Heroes and he would show up in 8 episodes between then and 1971.

Don't Forget to Write (1966)
Photo: imdb.com

However, his most prolific role of his career began in 1965 when he took on the role of Mr. Whipple for Charmin commercials. It wasn’t a bad gig. He worked 12-16 days a year and made $300,000 for that time. It was not easy work though. Dick described his work in a 1983 interview: Commercials are “the hardest thing to do in the entire acting realm. You’ve got 24 seconds to introduce yourself, introduce the product, say something nice about it and get off gracefully.” He also liked to relay that the first commercial series was made in the appropriately named Flushing, New York.

Photo: pinterest.com

His tagline in the commercials was “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin,” although we would often find Whipple squeezing the product when he thought no one was looking.  In appreciation for his work, Proctor and Gamble provided him with a free life-time supply of Charmin toilet paper.

In all, he appeared in 504 commercials between 1965-1989 and again from 1999-2000. In the late 80s he retired due to health concerns. He had two strokes and brain surgery. The company did bring him back in 1999 for a year as Mr. Whipple.

Even after he became Mr. Whipple, he received work in television. During the seventies, he would choose roles on Nanny and the Professor, Marcus Welby, Love American Style, McMillian and Wife, The Doris Day Show, The Paul Lynde Show, Maude, The Bob Newhart Show, Alice, and The Rockford Files among others.

His career declined in the eighties, but he still managed to tackle several roles and could be seen on Quincy, The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo, Small and Frye, and Square One Television. His last role was in 1989 on Small Wonder, a show about a robot who lives with a family and is portrayed as a child to the community.

All in all, he had a pretty amazing and full career.  He was able to appear in a variety of genres and, even after being so well known as a drunk or as Mr. Whipple, he was not typecast as a specific character. Two of his three children followed in his footsteps, son Stuart as a stuntman and daughter Melanie Wilson as an actress, who was best known for her 102 appearances on Perfect Strangers and several roles on Step by Step.

Hoho the Clown (1967)
On Bewitched Photo: imdb.com

Like Charles Lane, Dick Wilson is one of my favorite character actors. He provided thousands of hours of entertainment for us. It’s worth watching some classic television episodes just to see if you can spot him. Thank you Mr. Wilson for providing so much joy for so many years.

With Flip Wilson, What You See is What You Get

As we continue with the “They Call Me Wilson” blog series, today we take a look at a comedian who was a household name in the seventies but might not be well known today—Flip Wilson.

Flip Wilson was known best for his character of Geraldine and his catch phrase, “Here Comes de Judge.” In 1972, Time magazine heralded him “TV’s first black superstar.”

Photo: pinterest.com

Born Clerow Wilson Jr. in 1933 in New Jersey, Flip had nine brothers and sisters. His father, a handyman, was unable to find work during the Depression. His mother abandoned the family when Flip was only seven. His father was forced to place most of his children in foster homes. Flip said his happiest childhood memory was when he was in reform school. One of his teachers gave him the first birthday present he ever remembered–a box of Cracker Jacks and a can of shoe polish.

When he was sixteen, Flip lied about his age, joining the US Air Force. His outgoing personality and comedic demeanor made him popular with his barrack mates. It was at this time, he got the nickname “Flip” because his friends said he re-enacted outlandish stories in various dialects. Often he would use mock-Shakespearean phrases and one day a friend replied to one of them, “He flippeth his lid.” One of his superiors encouraged him to take some typing courses and do some studying.

After being discharged in 1954, he went to work as a bellhop at the Manor Plaza Hotel in San Francisco. He invented an inebriated character skit which he performed between acts in the nightclub there.

Eventually he wrote new material and began touring nightclubs throughout the US. He became a regular at Harlem’s Apollo Theater.

In 1957, Wilson married Lavenia “Peaches” Wilson and they divorced ten years later.

One night when Redd Foxx was a guest on the Tonight Show in 1965, Johnny Carson asked him who he thought was the funniest comedian around, and Redd said “Flip Wilson.” Carson booked Flip to appear on the show and so did Ed Sullivan. Again, his warm and friendly personality was mentioned. Richard Pryor once told Wilson that “You’re the only performer that I’ve ever seen who goes on the stage and the audience hopes that you like them.”

In 1968 he appeared on the Jerry Lewis Show, and in 1969 you could see him on Love American Style. During this time, he made his first of fourteen appearances on Laugh In.

Photo: amazon.com

In 1970, Flip was awarded a Grammy for his album, The Devil Made Me Buy this Dress. It was a great year for him and he received his own variety series also, The Flip Wilson Show on NBC. He would perform comedy sketches and featured many African American celebrities including The Supremes, The Jackson Five, Redd Foxx, and Bill Russell. George Carlin made frequent appearances in front of the camera with him and wrote for the show behind the camera.

The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress [Vinyl]

Wilson would often show up as Reverend Leroy, the pastor of the “Church of What’s Happening Now.”

Photo: youtube.com

He also took on the persona of sassy Geraldine whose boyfriend was “Killer.” She often said “The devil made me do it” and “What you see is what you get.”

Photo: pinterest.com

Unlike many comedians in the seventies, Flip stayed away from politics and social satire. A lot of his stories involved black characters viewing historic events from a different perspective. Some critics praised him for his choice and others said he was “defusing his blackness.” Wilson’s response to these critics was that “funny is not a color. . . my main point is to be funny; if I can slip a message in there, fine.” One contemporary said he was a rare comic in that he told stories that didn’t make black people feel angry or make white people feel guilty.

During his four years on the show, Wilson had high ratings; the show received eleven Emmy Award nominations, winning two; he also won the Golden Globe’s Best Actor in a Television Series. Wilson ended the show while it still was receiving raving reviews. By 1972, he was making a million dollars a year.

Time-Magazine-1972-January-31-Comedian-Flip-Wilson

During the run of his show, he accepted a role on one other television show—Here’s Lucy in 1971. After his show went off the air, he could be seen in The Six Million Dollar Man in 1976 and Insight in 1978. He also appeared on the big screen in several movies.

Flip took some time off in the seventies to care for his children. Having four children with his common-law wife Blonell Pitman, he received full custody of them in 1979. In that same year, he married Tuanchai “Cookie” MacKenzie and had a fifth child, but they divorced in 1984.

During the 1980s and 1990s, he continued to be offered roles in television. He was on The Love Boat in 1981, in 227 in 1988 and 1989, in American Playhouse in 1990, and on The Drew Carey Show in 1996 and 1998.

Wilson with Gladys Knight, Kristoff St. John, Jaleel White, and Fran Robinson–Photo: pinterest.com

In 1985, he tackled a regular series again, starring in Charlie and Co. with Gladys Knight. Flip portrayed Charlie who worked for the Division of Highways and Gladys his wife Diana, a school teacher. The middle-class family raised their three children—16-year-old Junior, 15-year-old Lauren, and 9-year-old Robert–on the South side of Chicago.  The show was cancelled after only 18 episodes.

In 1998, Wilson died from liver cancer.

Photo: pinterest.com

Dying at 65 cut Wilson’s career short, especially because he took off so much time to raise his kids, so they would have a different type of childhood than he did. However, he achieved what he set out to. He was a self-made millionaire, a man who performed the type of comedy he chose, and a good father who raised his children to have a better life than he did. You could not ask for a better definition of success.

Say Jell-o to Don Wilson

As we continue with our “They Call Me Wilson” series, today we learn about the career of Don Wilson.  With 33 movie credits, he only starred in seven television shows, but if you were a fan of Jack Benny or Batman, you will recognize him immediately.

Photo: oldtimeradio.com

Wilson was born in 1900 in Nebraska. Not much is known about his early life, but in one interview in 1980, he mentioned he went to high school in Boulder, CO. He played football at the University of Colorado and was an excellent golfer.

Denver was also the place he began his radio career, singing on KFEL in 1923. Wilson talked about a group he was part of, the Columbia Trio, in Denver beginning in 1925; they played on the radio and appeared in clubs when they needed a late substitute. One of their clients for commercials was for Piggly Wiggly and the store brought the three musicians to California when the company decided to open up new stores in California and renamed them the Piggly Wiggly Trio.

By the end of the decade, he was working full time at station KFI and later at KHJ both in Los Angeles. In an interview later in his life, he said he bought a Packard from Earle C. Anthony, and the Cadillac sponsor Don Lee, who owned KFI did not take it kindly and fired Wilson.

Apparently, he couldn’t decide which direction he wanted his career to go. During the early thirties, he worked as a sportscaster and covered the opening of the 1932 Summer Olympics for NBC. He also announced five Rose Bowls. He was mentored by Ted Hussey and said he was the greatest sports announcer bar none as well as a generous and knowledgeable man.

He took on Broadway roles in 1932 and 1934. He also began radio announcing for programs in the mid-thirties, first working with Benny in 1934.

Being perhaps indecisive, he also had a hard time with his love life. His first marriage was to Lucy Saufley in 1927; in 1940, he divorced Saufley and he married Peggy Kent whose father was president of 20th Century Fox. In 1942, the same month his divorce became final , he married a Polish countess, Marusia Radunska and this relationship lasted seven years. When he married his fourth wife, Lois Corbett in 1950, he finally found a lifetime partner.

He would be a member of the Jack Benny television family for 31 years, but when he was hired, although it was as a permanent cast member, he was at least the fourth announcer in two years to work on the show. Wilson said he thinks he was chosen partly because he laughed at all the right lines. He said luckily, in person, Benny was much more generous with his salary than was portrayed on the show.

When Benny made the foray into television in 1950, Wilson went along and would continue to costar on the show until it ended in 1965.

The cast of The Jack Benny Show-Photo: tvtropes.com

Although Don was listed as announcer for the Benny show, like Harry Von Zell on Burns and Allen, he was really part of the cast. His good-natured, friendly manner and booming Midwestern voice made him a pleasant person who often took the brunt of jokes by Benny, often due to his 6 foot, 300-pound physique. Wilson’s wife Lois appeared as his wife on the show for fifteen years, so it was a family affair. She also acted on other radio shows.

Benny producer Irving Fein, said Don “was a great foil for Jack. He was the hearty announcer who tried to get the commercial on the air and Jack would try to thwart him. Sometimes Don would have the Sportsmen Quartet sneak in the commercial. Don would tell Jack the Sportsmen were going to do a song. Then they would sing a chorus of a song and the final chorus would be the commercial.” The first commercial Wilson pitched on the show was for General Tires. Jell-O, part of General Foods, sponsored the show for ten years, and Lucky Strike then took over for another fifteen years.

Photo: jackbennypodcast.com

His coworkers said he rarely misspoke his lines, but when he did, they took advantage of it. In an interview on speakingofradio.com, Don told a story that during one 1950 broadcast, he relayed a bunch of information and Jack asked him when he learned all that and Don said he read it in columnist Drew Pearson’s article, but he mistakenly said Dreer Pooson. Later during the murder-mystery story, Benny approached Frank Nelson and asked, “Pardon me, are you the doorman?” Instead of the written line, Nelson asked, “Well who do you think I am, Dreer Pooson?” That line got a lot of applause and laughter.

He said Benny was a quiet listener and preferred to stay in the background reacting to other actors. However, Wilson said that “when he was eventually on, he could top everybody. . . He wasn’t a one-liner comedian . . . he was a real thoroughbred professional, start to finish.  He always demanded the very, very best that he could possibly get and if ever there was an irreplaceable man, Jack Benny would be that man.”

Wilson with Jack Benny and Dennis Day–Photo: radiospirits.info

Don discussed how the show worked. He said “Jack’s philosophy was that the bigger he could make the supporting people, the bigger the Jack Benny Show became and the bigger Jack Benny therefore became.”  Wilson said he was thoughtful and generous and would not allow anything off-color in the show, so it was fit for family watching. He said in one episode, Benny sat off to one side and the cast spoke to him, but he didn’t actually utter a line until the last few minutes of the show. He said Jack often came up with the idea for a show but then turned it over to the writers and let them do their part.

He said some of his most enjoyable shows were when he traveled with Jack performing for military audiences. Jack would try to move the brass, so the enlisted men could have front-row seats.

Wilson did announcing work for a variety of programs in the heyday of radio. He worked with Bing Crosby, Fanny Brice, and Alan Young. He also worked for Chesterfield when they sponsored a show with Glenn Miller.  When Miller went into the war, Harry James took over that spot, and Don continued working with him.

Wilson said in the early years of television, they did two live presentations, one for the east coast and one for the west coast.  In between they would tweak lines and rehearse those changes. Eventually, the show was taped, so the cast did not have to do two live performances.

Radio Guide, in addition to other award groups, awarded Don the Announcer of the Year Award for fifteen years straight.

While on Benny’s show, Don also made several appearances on other television shows in the fifties and sixties. He showed up on Screen Directors Playhouse in 1955 and on The Red Skelton Show in 1959. He was a preacher on Death Valley Days in 1959.

Photo: radiospirits.com

In the sixties, he could be seen in the Mel-O-Toons in 1960 which presented short, five-minute stories often based on fairy tales. He was also on Harrigan and Son in 1961. His last role was after Jack Benny went off the air. He was Walter Klondike, a newscaster spoof on Walter Kronkite, on Batman in 1966.

Watch Batman Season 2 Episode 18 - Dizzoner the Penguin Online Now
Photo: yidio.com

Don passed away due to a stroke in 1982.

I really enjoyed listening to several interviews with Don. He was so appreciative of his career and the people he was able to work with during his entertainment opportunities. Listening to someone who was able to get in on the beginning of radio and then do the same thing with television was very interesting and informative. I hope he realizes how much we all appreciated him.

Everybody’s Friend, Marie Wilson

This month our blog series is “They Call Me Wilson,” and we will be looking at actors with the last name of Wilson.  Today we begin our series with Marie Wilson, a familiar face in television in the 1950s.

See the source image
Photo: e.n. wikipedia.org

Marie was born Katherine Elizabeth Wilson in August of 1916 in California. Her nickname in high school was “Maybelle.” After her father died, the family moved to Hollywood. She graduated from high school in 1933, and by 1934, she had received her first movie credit. One source mentioned that her parents divorced when she was only seven months old and her father, Wally Wilson, passed away when she was five. She received an $11,000 trust which helped her take time to pursue a career in acting. Her stepfather, Frank White, raised her.

Photo: blogspot.com

Her first role was as a passenger in Down to Their Last Yacht, but she would go on to appear in more than fifty films. The plot of this movie was that a family loses everything in the Depression except their yacht. Several men who feel bad for their daughter decide to host a Monte Carlo night.  The group rigs the roulette wheel so that the house is the winner although she knows nothing about it.

From 1947 to 1953 she also accepted a role on radio as the scatterbrained Irma on My Friend Irma. The show was very popular with well-written scripts and accomplished acting.

Wilson with Cathy Lewis–Photo: oldtimeradiodownloads.com

During this time, she also starred in a couple of films about Irma in My Friend Irma and My Friend Irma Goes West. A duo by the name of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis starred in the movie version of My Friend Irma.

See the source image

Not content with Irma occupying space in two big medias, My Friend Irma aired on television from 1952-1954. Irma was a secretary living with roommate and friend Jane Stacy (Cathy Lewis) in a run-down apartment owned by Mrs. O’Reilly (Gloria Gordon). Neighbor Professor Kropotkin (Sig Arno) got involved in the girls’ lives as well as Jane’s boyfriend, millionaire Richard Rhinelander III (Brooks West) whose mother was played by the amazing Margaret Dumont. After Jane moves to Panama at the end of season one, Kay Foster (Mary Shipp) became Irma’s new roommate. Her boyfriend was Joe Vance (Hal March). The new neighbor was Mr. Corday (John Carradine), an actor and just for some new plots, Irma’s seven-year-old nephew Bobby (Richard Eyer) moves into the apartment.

Photo: oldtimeradiodownloads.com

During her time on radio, she married actor Allan Nixon. Apparently, he struggled because he was a bit player while her career flourished.  He was arrested numerous times for drunk and disorderly conduct, and they divorced in 1950. Another big disappointment occurred in 1950 when she lost the role of Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday to Judy Holliday.

The following year she married Robert Fallon, another fellow actor, and they remained together until her death in 1972.

Marie’s appearances on television waned in the sixties.  She appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1960 and on Comedy Spot in 1962. Comedy Spot had a different premise.  As a summer replacement for Red Skelton, it featured unsold pilots for comedy series and reruns from comedic anthology shows.

Photo: oldtimeradioclassics.com

In 1963 she would appear on two episodes of Burke’s Law and in one episode of Empire.

In 1970 she returned to a weekly animation series on Where’s Huddles? She had the role of football wife Penny McCoy. Unfortunately, it was cancelled after only ten episodes. This show was about the lives of football families on and off the field and featured a lot of talent including Paul Lynde, Jean Vander Pyl, Allan Reed, and Mel Blanc.

See the source image
Photo: hanna-barbera.wikia.com

Her last appearance was on Love American Style as Margaret Cooperman in 1972 in “Love and the Girlish Groom.”

Wilson was recognized for each of her Irma media hits with a Walk of Fame star for radio at 6301 Hollywood Boulevard, for television at 6765 Hollywood Boulevard, and for movies at 6601 Hollywood Boulevard.

Photo: pinterest.com

Not many actresses can claim their leg is a famous sculpture but Wilson’s left leg was used to cast a 35-foot sculpture located outside the Theme Hosiery plant in Los Angeles. The leg was wearing nylons to promote them to the public in 1949.

Marie had a long and successful career but was typecast early in life and unable to shake that image.  It may have contributed her loss of the part in Born Yesterday which might have changed her career dramatically. Discussing her life in entertainment, Wilson said “Show business has been very good to me and I’m not complaining, but some day I just wish someone would offer me a different kind of role. My closest friends admit that whenever they tell someone they know me, they have to convince them that I’m really not dumb. To tell you the truth, I think people are disappointed that I’m not.”

See the source image
Photo: pinterest.com

As we’ve seen so often in this blog, it’s hard not to be grateful for a lucrative career in entertainment, but it’s tough to be locked into one type of role and never given a chance to show your depths as an actor. Thanks for being our friend, Marie.