One of Flip Wilson’s catchphrases on his hit ’70s variety show was “What you see is what you get!” But that wasn’t always the case with Flip. Viewers saw a happy-go-lucky funnyman, but off-camera, he was a deeply tortured soul.
“Flip was always haunted by his childhood,” Kevin Cook, author of Flip: The Inside Story of TV’s First Black Superstar, tells Closer. “He was looking for some sort of belonging his whole life.” Born to an impoverished family in Jersey City, New Jersey, Flip was abandoned by his mom when he was 7 and put into foster care by his dad. He acted out and ended up in juvenile detention.
At 16, Flip lied about his age and joined the Air Force, where he found his calling by entertaining his fellow troops. After honing his act in nightclubs, he became a star with The Flip Wilson Show from 1970 to 1974. “My main point is to be funny,” he said. “If I can slip a message in there, fine.”
His comedy may not have been topical, but Flip was quietly revolutionary. “A show hosted by a black had never been accepted,” he said. “I may have been the first black in the house” for some white viewers.
Flip stepped away from the spotlight in the ’80s to focus on his five kids: “I accomplished what I set out to do — I wanted the whole cookie, and I got it. Now I want to spend more time with my children, make sure they don’t go through what I did.”
At that, Flip succeeded. “He was wonderful as a father,” son Kevin Wilson tells Closer. “He really wanted to raise us as normally as possible. We weren’t spoiled like a lot of my friends were.”
In his later years, Flip battled drug problems, and he died of liver cancer at 64 in 1998. But his fans, friends and family members have never forgotten him. “It’s nice to look back and see how beloved he was,” says Cook. “At the height of his popularity, it really meant a lot to him.” Adds Kevin, “He was very proud of everything he accomplished in life. I have such great memories.”
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