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.

Just a Couple of Characters, Part 3: Henry Jones and Olan Soule

My series, “Just a Couple of Characters” continues with Part 3 today. This month, we learn more about actors we recognize but may not know much about. This week Henry Jones and Olan Soule are on the hot seat.

Henry Jones

Photo: en.wikipedia.org

Born in New Jersey in 1912 and raised in Pennsylvania, his grandfather was a first-generation Prussian immigrant who became a Representative. Henry went to St. Joseph’s College, a Jesuit school. He landed his first Broadway show in 1938, playing Reynaldo and a grave digger in “ Hamlet. ” Like many of the actors in the late 30s and early 40s, Henry joined the Army for World War II. He was a private. During his service, he was cast as a singing soldier, Mr.  Brown, in Irving Berlin’s “This is the Army.”

When he came back to the US, he married Yvonne Sarah Bernhardt-Buerger in 1942. I think that it took longer for her to sign her name on the marriage certificate than the marriage lasted because ten months later they were divorced. Jones continued his stage roles and began a movie career. He had bit parts in 35 films, including The Bad Seed, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Vertigo, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He won a Supporting Actor Tony in 1958 for his performance of Louis Howe in “Sunrise at Campobello.”

Photo: fanpix.famousfix.com

In 1948 he married Judith Johnson. They had two children (one is actress Jocelyn Jones) but divorced in 1961.

Bridging the gap of television and film, he starred in seventeen tv movies as well.

Although his movie career kept him somewhat busy, it was nothing compared to his television work. Jones was credited with 205 acting appearances, meaning he had roles in 153 different television series. Jones was able to tackle a wide range of roles, being believable as a judge, a janitor, a murderer, or a minister. Jones had no illusions about becoming a romantic lead. He once said that “casting directors didn’t know what to do with me. I was never tall enough or good looking enough to play juvenile leads.”

Photo: findagrave.com

His first television appearance was in drama series, Hands of Mystery, in 1949. His work in the 1950s was primarily in theater shows about dramas. He also appeared in the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show and Father Knows Best.

Photo: michaelstvtray.com

He continued his drama roles into the 1960s. He also appeared in 3 episodes of The Real McCoys and westerns including Wagon Train, The Big Valley, and Daniel Boone. He showed up on mysteries such as the Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Name of the Game. He also found work on unique shows including Lost in Space, Route 66, and the Alfred Hitchcock Show. Hitchcock liked his work and used him five times. He also appeared in several comedies, Bewitched and That Girl. He starred in Channing in 1963-64.  Jones played Fred Baker, a dean who mentors Professor Joe Howe who teaches English at Channing College while he writes his memoir about the Korean War.

During the 1970s, he continued to work on a variety of genre shows. We see him on westerns, The Virginian, Gunsmoke, and Bonanza. We see him in thrillers like The Mod Squad; McMillan and Wife; Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law; and The Six Million Dollar Man, on which he had a recurring role as Dr. Jeffrey, a scientist who built robots. However, comedies continued to be his mainstay, and he appeared in many of them including Nanny and the Professor, the Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Paul Lynde Show, The Doris Day Show, the Partridge Family, and Barney Miller.

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In addition to all his guest spots, he was cast in three shows during this decade. In The Girl with Something Extra, he played Owen Metcalf in 1973. The role he was best remembered for was Judge Johnathan Dexter on Phyllis. He was Phyllis’s father-in-law from 1975-1977. As Josh Alden, he appeared on Mrs. Columbo for thirteen episodes.

Photo: totallykate.com

Recurring roles comprised most of his television appearances in the 1980s. He continued to accept guest roles on such shows as Quincy ME, Cagney and Lacey, Magnum PI, Murder She Wrote, The Love Boat, and Mr. Belvedere. He would make regular appearances on Gun Shy, Code Name: Foxfire, Falcon Crest, and I Married Dora.

Jones continued to appear in shows in the 1990s, including Coach and Empty Nest. In 1999, he passed away after suffering from complications from an injury from a fall.

Olan Soule

Photo: pinterest.com

Olan Soule’s timeline was similar to Jones. He was born in Illinois in 1909, growing up in Iowa, and he passed away in 1994. While Jones’ grandfather arrived in America, Soule’s ancestors included three Mayflower passengers. He began his acting career on the radio.

In 1929 he married Norma Miller. They would be married until her death in 1992 and they had two children.

For eleven years, he was part of the cast of the soap, “Bachelor’s Children.” His roles changed when he transitioned to television. On radio, he could play any role, but his 135-pound frame prohibited him from getting many roles he played on radio. He told the Los Angeles Times during an interview that “People can’t get over my skinny build when they meet me in person after hearing me play heroes and lovers on radio.”

Photo: tralfaz.blogspot.com

However, he certainly was not lacking in roles. Soule is credited with more than 7000 radio episodes and commercials, 60 films, and 200 television series.

The 1950s found him appearing in many sitcoms, including George Burns and Gracie Allen, I Married Joan, I Love Lucy, December Bride, the Ann Sothern Show, and Dennis the Menace.

Photo: complete-hitchcock.com

He would appear regularly in Dragnet from 1952-59 and in Captain Midnight from 1954-56.

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He got even busier in the 1960s, working nonstop. The only show he had a recurring role on was The Andy Griffith Show where he played choir director and hotel clerk John Masters. Other comedies he appeared on included The Jack Benny Show, Pete and Gladys, Bachelor Father, Make Room for Daddy, Mister Ed, My Favorite Martian, The Addams Family, The Monkees, Petticoat Junction, and That Girl. He also took on roles in suspense shows including One Step Beyond, the Alfred Hitchcock Show, and the Twilight Zone. He also specialized in westerns, including Maverick, Stage Coach West, Have Gun Will Travel, The Rifleman, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and The Big Valley.

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He started the 1970s continuing to show up on series such as Family Affair, My Three Sons, McMillan and Wife, Cannon, Police Woman, and a recurring role on the comedy Arnie.

Photo: monkees.coolcherrycream.com

In the mid-1970s he began appearing on Battlestar Galactica and Project UFO. Most of his career in the decade was spent providing voiceovers for animated shows, primarily Batman.

The Towering Inferno Director: John Guillermin US Premiere: 10 December 1974 Copyright 1974 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and Warner Bros. Inc.

In 1994, Soule died from lung cancer at age 84.

Both Soule and Jones were prolific actors who had long and successful careers. Neither one of them were the leading men type of actors, but they could tackle a wide range of roles. Soule once said, “Because of my build and glasses, I’ve mostly played lab technicians, newscasters, and railroad clerks.” Not a bad life for someone who loves acting. If you watch Antenna or Me Tv, chances are you will see these two characters pop up quite often.