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.

*while a couple of sources I read stated that Flip had five children, a reader mentioned that in the book by Kevin Cook, the fifth child Michelle Trice was said to be Blonell Pitman’s daughter from a previous relationship. Since Cook wrote the biography, I’m assuming he is correct.

Oh, Alice

By the time February arrives, I am typically tired of winter and ready for some nicer weather.  Since I am not traveling anywhere warm this month, I decided to indulge myself and learn more about some of the actors and actresses behind some of my favorite television characters this month.

 

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I begin with Ann B. Davis.  Most of us recognize her as Alice on The Brady Bunch, but Ann was quite an established actress long before the show began, receiving her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.

 

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Ann was born in 1926 in New York. Her mother was a professional actress who performed with many stock companies and smaller theaters. She had an older brother and a twin sister Harriet. In a foreshadow perhaps of her future career, Ann made $2 working with puppets at age 6. The family moved to Erie, Pennsylvania where Ann spent most of her school years, graduating from high school in Erie.

 

She went on to the University of Michigan where she majored in pre-med. Her brother toured the country as the lead dancer in a production of Oklahoma which inspired her to try acting.  She loved acting so much that she changed her major to drama and speech, graduating from college in 1948.

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She paid her dues for six years, performing in California in various theaters and stock companies, before moving to Hollywood. She received parts in several stage productions including The Women and Twelfth Night. In 1953, she was one of the musical judges on Jukebox Jury. The show aired Sunday nights and typically minor stars would judge new music.

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Her first film was Strategic Air Command in 1955 with Jimmy Stewart. Unfortunately, her scene was cut from the film before it was released. She would go on to star in six additional films including A Man Called Peter (1955), The Best Things in Life are Free (1956), Pepe (1960), All Hands On Deck (1961), Lover Come Back (1961), Naked Gun (1994), and The Brady Bunch Movie (1995).

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In 1958 Ann accepted a position on the SAG board of governors.

 

She explored her love of theater throughout her career and in 1960 she replaced Carol Burnett in Once Upon a Mattress.

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Ann found most of her fame in television. She began appearing in series in 1956 when she was on Matinee Theater and Lux Video Theater.

 

In 1955 she received a starring role in The Bob Cummings Show as Schultzy, Bob’s assistant. For four years, she loved Bob from afar while he chased after many of the models he photographed. His sister who lived with him was trying to reform him, so he would settle down, but we knew deep in his heart he loved Schultzy. Ann won two Emmys for her portrayal of Schultzy.

 

When the show ended, she went back to making appearances, taking roles on Wagon Train (1960), The New Breed (1962), McKeever and the Colonel (1963), and Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater (1964).

 

During 1965-66, she would receive another starring role appearing as Miss Wilson, the physical education teacher on The John Forsythe Show. The premise was that John had inherited a private girls’ school from his aunt. A bachelor and a retired air force major, he later becomes a spy and the school staff is eliminated from the show.

 

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After the cancellation of Forsythe’s series, Davis appeared on The Phyllis Diller Show (1966), Insight (1968), and Love American Style three times from 1970-1973. Between the years 1959 and 1969, Ann volunteered by traveling with the USO at various times.

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The year 1969 brought her the role she would become famous for as Alice Nelson on The Brady Bunch.  Ann played Alice from 1969-1995 exclusively. Ann might hold a record for playing the same character in six different series: The Brady Bunch (1969), The Brady Bunch Variety Hour (1976), The Brady Brides (1981), Day by Day (1981), The Bradys (1990), and Hi Honey I’m Home (1991). She also reprised her role as Alice in two made-for-tv movies: The Brady Girls Get Married and A Very Brady Christmas

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Along with Florence Henderson and Barry Williams, she was in every Brady Bunch episode. Alice was a friend to each of the Brady kids never playing favorites, but on one episode she gives Jan a locket because they were both middle children with an older glamorous sister Emily/Marcia and a younger cutesy sister Myrtle/Cindy. In real life, Ann said that she felt Eve Plumb was the best actor of the Brady kids.

 

Florence Henderson and Ann remained friends for life.

 

On the show, Alice never got far from her roots.  She had gone to the same high school Greg and Marcia attended. Becoming a housekeeper for the Bradys before Mike’s wife died, she stayed on when he married Carol and her three daughters moved in. Alice spent as much time mediating family disputes, doling out advice, trying to keep the kids from getting in trouble with their parents, and dispensing sarcastic words of wisdom to the entire family as she did cleaning and cooking.

Alice rarely was seen out of her sky-blue uniform. She dated Sam the butcher and kept waiting for his marriage proposal. They often bowled and won a prize for their Charleston dancing. I think Sam knew all along, he couldn’t propose till Mike and Carol became empty nesters.  Alice was never a maid, she was a valued member of the family who went on vacations with the family and was invited to their school performances and into their friends’ lives. In today’s economy, Alice would probably net $50,000 a year for her job, but we know it was never about the money for her.

 

Ann received endorsements from her Alice role as well. She was in television commercials for many products including Ikea, Ford Motor Co., Shake and Bake, and Minute Rice.

 

Her role as Alice also led to her publishing Alice’s Brady Bunch Cookbook with recipes inspired by the show or contributed from cast members.

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In 1976, she moved to Denver to live with Bishop Frey and his wife Barbara in their Episcopal community, a large historical home.  For many years, Ann had volunteered with the local and national Episcopal church conferences. When Bishop Frey accepted the position as Dean of Trinity School for Ministry in Pennsylvania, Ann moved with the couple. She again moved with them to San Antonio Texas. Ann was very committed to her church and her prayer life and performed a lot of volunteer work for her church. She also appreciated her fans.  According to Bishop Frey, she spent several days even at the end of her life answering fan mail.

Ann considered herself semi-retired from show business, but in the 1990s, she made several films and accepted a role with a theater group for Arsenic and Old Lace as well as a world tour of a show called Crazy for You. She also made appearances on TV Land for award shows in 2004, 2006, and 2007.

 

Ann was extremely healthy in her golden years, but she fell, hitting her head which caused her death in 2014.

Alice Nelson has become a pulp culture icon; however, like Sally Rogers on The Dick Van Dyke Show, there was so much more to Ann B. Davis’s career than her role as a maid. She had an amazing career in theatre, film, and television. While I appreciate her work as Schultzy on The Bob Cummings Show and Miss Wilson on The John Forsythe Show, Alice took care of me, along with the Brady kids, in the early seventies, and I will always have a special place in my heart for her.