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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

Is It A Western? A Spy Show? A Thriller? No, It’s The Wild Wild West

There was no specific category for the Wild Wild West when it first debuted in 1965.  Part western, part spy show, part thriller.  Now, it might be called steampunk. Westerns had been extremely popular through the 1950s and into the 1960s, but in the mid-1960s, the spy genre was gaining ground. Creator Michael Garrison combined the two. Secret Service agents Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemis Gordon (Ross Martin), work for President Ulysses Grant and travel the country by luxury train, the Wanderer.  Oh yeah, and they have a ton of technology to make the job more exciting. Artemis is a master of disguise.  Like James Bond, they had clever gadgets on hand, beautiful women in the wings, and delusional, but brilliant, enemies to fight against.

Photo: decades.com

The series debuted in 1965 and ran for four seasons, resulting in 104 episodes. Unfortunately, Garrison died a year into the show and didn’t live to see its completion. The show was filmed at CBS Studio Center. The 70-acre lot was used for Gunsmoke, Rawhide, and Gilligan’s Island as well.

The theme song was written by Richard Markowitz. The intro had an animated sequence that continued to be filled in throughout the show. This was quite unique to this program.

Conrad claimed to be the 17th actor to audition for the role of James West. Originally, Rory Calhoun was announced as the co-star. Conrad wore three-inch heels to hide that he was only 5’8”. Due to his height, the casting office was barred from hiring women over 5’6” for the show. The first few episodes used stuntmen, but Conrad felt that it slowed production down too much, so he volunteered to do his own stunts. During season three, he fell from a chandelier and hit a concrete floor, leaving him with a concussion and weeks of hospitalization for dizziness.

Photo: artworkproduction.ca

Ross played over 100 different characters during the run of the series. He sketched out the ideas for the characters himself and then worked with the make-up artists to get the right look. During the fourth season, Martin broke a leg when he dropped a rifle, stepped on it, and rolled his foot over it. When the shell ejected, it burned his eye. Ross also suffered from a heart attack in 1968. Several other agents “filled” in for Martin while he recuperated.

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Considering the show was only on for four years, it featured a number of guest stars including Ed Asner, John Astin, Jim Backus, Ed Begley, Victor Buono, Jackie Coogan, Yvonne Craig, Sammy Davis Jr., Jack Elam, Norman Fell, Bernard Fox, Mary Frann, Beverly Garland, Alan Hale Jr., Boris Karloff, Richard Kiel, Ted Knight, Harvey Korman, Martin Landau, Sue Ane Langdon, Peter Lawford, Ida Lupino, Burgess Meredith, Agnes Moorehead, Phyllis Newman, Leslie Nielsen, Carroll O’Connor, Pat Paulsen, Suzanne Pleshette, Richard Pryor, Don Rickles, Pernell Roberts, Katherine Ross, William Schallert, Vito Scotti, Ray Walston, Jesse White, and Keenan Wynn.

The train was also a co-star of the show. The spies had two different trains. The first was used for season one when the shows were filmed in black and white. It was a Sierra Railroad No. 3 which was not built until 1891, a mere technicality I guess. The Rogers Locomotive and Machine Works built it in New Jersey. Footage was shot in Jamestown, California. This same train was the Cannonball in Petticoat Junction.

Photo: metv.com

The shows filmed in color featured a train decorated with green and gold and it was full of fun gadgets. This one was built in 1875 by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia. It was used in many films over the years.

Photo: tripadvisor.co.uk

Both these trains are on display at the Nevada State Railroad Museum. They were only featured in exterior shots. The interiors of the trains were designed by art director Albert Heschong with set decorator Raymond Molyneaux. It reportedly cost $35,000 in 1965. To put this in perspective, the average house in 1965 cost less than $4,000! The train was as resourceful as West and Gordon. A remote control under the table could immediately lock the door. A statue turned upside down unlocked a wall safe. A telegraph set was hidden in a book on the desk. Pistols could be fired by activating a fireplace switch. The pool table had exploding balls while cue sticks could fire bullets.

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Many of the guest stars were villains in the show. The most famous villain was Dr. Miguelito Loveless played by Michael Dunn. He had a recurring role, appearing on ten episodes. He always managed to escape at the end of the show. West and Artemis never did catch him, and a TV movie filmed later relays that he died in 1880 from ulcers brought on by the stress of his plans always being foiled by West and Gordon.

Like Batman, Jim West always seems to have the right gadget at his disposal when he needs it. Some of his more fun props included a sleeve gun as well as a gun concealed in his heel. He also occasionally carried a blowtorch in his heel. Passkeys were stored under his lapel. He kept a variety of fuses sewn into hems in his clothes. To descend into a pit or be hoisted up on a roof, he had a hand-held motor-driven winch. Glass cutters which often are useful were available. Wires placed in his hat had many uses. Battery-powered drills helped the boys escape metal cages. His kit bag held a large balloon. A miniature player made villains think shot guns were being fired. Of course, every smart secret service man wears a bulletproof vest and is always equipped with tear gas or smoke bombs. They even had a cigar that would produce smoke when thrown on the ground and a coin that exploded when exposed to heat.

Photo: thegoldencloset.com

There typically were two fights in each episode choreographed by Whitey Hughes. Following the 1968 assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, a National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence was formed. Violence on television was listed as one of the problems, and The Wild Wild West was cited as a violent show. So, despite high ratings, the series was cancelled near the end of its fourth season as a concession to Congress over television violence.

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However, the show was then released into syndication and at one time was listed on 99 different local channels, so the violence on television was not curbed by its cancellation.

Several books and comic books were created based on the show. In 1979, the two stars returned to television with a movie, The Wild Wild West Revisited. In 1980, they showed up again in More Wild Wild West. Rumors existed that the duo would do a reboot of the series, but Ross died in 1981 so it never came to fruition.

A movie was made in 1999 based on the original show, but it was not received well. Will Smith later expressed regret for his role in the film. The Golden Raspberry (Razzie) is awarded to the worst films. When the 1999 film was awarded five Razzies, Conrad accepted them on behalf of the movie to show his displeasure with the remake.

Photo: stupendouslyamazinglycoololdtv.blogspot.com

The show’s success primarily stemmed from the fact that Artemus and West trusted each other completely, and their banter and technological gadgets made the show a pleasure to watch. And did I mention, the boys loved women on and found a romance on every show. We’ll let the characters have the last word:

Artemus Gordon: “Naomi. ’My sweetness’. That’s what Naomi means in Hebrew, did you know that ?”

Naomi Buckley: “Really ? And what does Artemus mean ?”

James West: “It means ’He who wastes little time‘.”

Photo: filmscoremonthly.com

Artemus Gordon: “I didn’t know you liked toys.”

James West: “Toys, no. Dolls, yes.”

Tonight’s Partridge Family Episode Features . . .

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The Partridge Family (ABC) later seasons (1971 – 1974) Shown from left: (top) Brian Forster, Danny Bonaduce, Suzanne Crough; (front) David Cassidy, Shirley Jones, Susan Dey

Ask any girl who grew up in the late sixties and early seventies and they will tell you their favorite night of television was Friday.  We looked forward to watching The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, Room 222, The Odd Couple, and Love American Style, but the first hour of the night was the only “can’t miss” one. Boys coming of age in that era might have a tough time deciding between Samantha Stevens and Jeannie, but almost every girl will tell you Keith Partridge beat out Greg Brady hands down. Like most nine-year-olds in 1970, I had a huge crush on Keith Partridge. Watching the episodes today takes me right back to that time, and I feel like a kid on Friday night again.

The Partridge Family aired from 1970-1974, and the concept was based on the Cowsills.  The Cowsill family grew up in Rhode Island, and by 1967 the band consisted of siblings ages 8-19 and their mother. Although the group no longer includes all the siblings, they still tour and record.

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I still enjoy watching the episodes today.  Even though the show is filled with nostalgia as far as clothing and interior décor, the problems faced by the Partridge Family were primarily the same problems faced by all families with kids and many of the shows have a timeless appeal. I’m not sure that anyone not growing up during that time period realizes the impact of the Partridge Family.  I still have the Partridge Family game, we had trading cards that were collected and the back of the cards put together formed a puzzle.  I had paperback books featuring the Partridge Family and lots of kids had albums, lunch boxes and other collectible memorabilia. Danny is often referred to as a brat, but I like the character of Danny Partridge.  Then again, I liked all the Partridge Family members.

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However, what I wanted to talk about in this blog is the unbelievable guest stars that the show was able to attract.  Of course, Shirley Jones was a well-liked and famous movie star and she had a lot of connections in the industry.  However, the names of the people who appeared on an episode of The Partridge Family during those four short years is incredible. I counted more than 50 looking at various shows over the years.  Let’s look at some of those guest stars.

Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow, and Margaret Hamilton, the wicked witch, from the Wizard of Oz both made appearances.  Ray Bolger played Shirley Partridge’s father on several shows. Margaret Hamilton is Rueben’s mother.

Two Dick Van Dyke Show cast members were featured:  Morey Amsterdam, Buddy Sorrel and Ann Morgan Guilbert, Milly Helper. Amsterdam provided Danny with some bad comedy material in the first season. Guilbert is married to Norman Fell in the show and they visit Shirley when their son Keith’s age develops a crush on Shirley which he mistakenly thinks is reciprocated.

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In addition to Ann and Morey, there were a lot of previous sitcom stars on the show.  John Astin from the Addams Family, plays an eccentric millionaire. Edgar Buchanan, Uncle Joe from Petticoat Junction, plays a judge which he also portrayed in the movie, Move Over Darling, starring Doris Day and James Garner. Rosemary DeCamp played Shirley’s mother.  Rosemary had been featured on lots of tv shows.  She was on Love That Bob and was Ann Marie’s mother on That Girl. Arte Johnson from Laugh-In was in two episodes, one as an artist who paints a nude on the family garage when they are out of town.  Harry Morgan, a sitcom veteran, played, a man faking whiplash in the first season and appeared again in 1972 as another character. William Schallert who was Patty Lane’s father on The Patty Duke Show stars as a folk musician whose career has taken a nose dive. Ronne Troup who played Polly on My Three Sons was on the show as the fourth season began as their neighbor complains about their music.

Not only were the past tv stars featured but a lot of up and coming stars showed up. Meredith Baxter gifts a million dollars to the Partridges and they find they don’t enjoy being wealthy. Bert Convy played one of Shirley’s serious boyfriends on three shows. Norman Fell is the father of a young man who gets a crush on Shirley when she goes back to school using her maiden name. He later married Helen and was Stanley Roper on Three’s Company. Pat Harrington Jr. appeared the first season and came back as someone else three years later. While he was in hundreds of tv episodes, he is probably most often recognized as Schneider from One Day at a Time.  The Partridges try to set up Ann Jillian with their delivery boy to build up his confidence.  If she had dated him, she might not have ended up a waitress on It’s a Living. Gordon Jump who was a veteran tv guest star, best known as Arthur Carlson from WKRP in Cincinnati, was on seven episodes as different characters. Richard Mulligan appeared in one show as Shirley’s boyfriend but also came back for another episode two years later; we know him as Burt on Soap and Dr. Westin on Empty Nest. Annette O’Toole plays Keith’s girlfriend in the second season; later her marriage with Nash doesn’t work out on Nash Bridges. Rob Reiner, who will soon be “Meathead” on All in The Family, appears as Snake, a rough biker with a heart of gold who likes Laurie.  Vic Tayback who we know best as Mel on Alice appeared as three different characters on three different shows, Nancy Walker is the mother of Shirley’s date before she was Rhoda’s mom in later years.

Three of the five Charlie’s Angels showed up on different shows:  Farrah Fawcett was a “pretty girl” the kids hire to try to get Harry Morgan to reveal that his whiplash is not real. Cheryl Ladd is the popular girl Keith wants to take to the dance after promising to take Laurie’s friend. Jaclyn Smith plays the niece of Shirley’s boyfriend.  When he buys her a ring for graduation, the kids assume she is his fiancé and take matters into their own hands.

We had big stars from different genres including Johnny Cash playing himself and introducing the first concert the family is performing in Vegas. Richard Pryor talks the Partridges into playing for his charity event, and Bobby Sherman plays a singer, Bobby Conway. This episode actually turned into a spinoff for a short time.

Many famous or soon-to-be-famous movie stars can be spied on episodes including Jackie Coogan who replaced Ray Bolger as Shirley’s father on two later shows. Jodie Foster and Danny have a love/hate relationship when their parents are dating. Lou Gosset Jr., producing a charity event with Richard Pryor, asks the Partridges to fill in when a group cancels. Mark Hamill is Laurie’s boyfriend before he even knew Princess Leia. Charlotte Rae, a bit out of her typical character, plays a doctor.

I could continue, but every blog has to end sometime. It is amazing how many famous people were willing to appear in a new sitcom not only once but up to seven times as seven different characters. It says a lot about the reputation of the show. Let’s finish up with some fun facts about the show.

  1. Shirley Jones was recruited to be Carol Brady but passed and took The Partridge Family
  2. Partridge had passed away in the first episode, but his first name is never mentioned on the show.
  3. Rueben Kincaid’s middle name is Clarence.
  4. When the Partridges are asked to replace another musical act for a charity event put on by Richard Pryor and Lou Gossett Jr., the group that cancelled is the Temptations.
  5. When Laurie gets braces, she can hear radio signals in her mouth, and it interferes with her performing. The music she “hears” in her mouth is The Rolling Stones.