The Inside Story of TV's First Black Superstar
The first biography of the beloved entertainer who broke the prime-time color barrier
When The Flip Wilson Show debuted in 1970, black faces were still rare on television and black hosts nonexistent. Then came Flip—to instant acclaim. His show dueled Marcus Welby, M.D. for the top spot in the ratings. His characters and catchphrases fixed themselves in America’s consciousness, and he helped launch new talent, including Richard Pryor and George Carlin. But how did Clerow Wilson, a motherless Jersey City grade-school dropout, become the celebrity heralded on the cover of TIME as “TV’s First Black Superstar”? Drawing on interviews with family, friends, and celebrities, Kevin Cook offers an inspiring salute to a self-made star who fell from grace, but not before blazing a trail for generations of entertainers to come.
He can’t wait to ?nish his bows. Flip Wilson, a compact man in a bespoke suit and pink tie, faces an adoring studio audience in Burbank, California. “Goodnight!” he says, bowing with his manicured hands on his knees, letting the applause wash over him. His name sparkles behind him in letters ten feet high: FLIP.
Winking at the camera that’s sending his smile to twenty million viewers, he looks like the happiest man in America. But the moment the camera’s red light blinks out, his smile disappears. His lively eyes dim. He’s out of there.
He greets a few front-row fans on his way offstage. Loosening his tie, he pats his producer on the back. “Bob, good work tonight.” Moving on, he slaps hands with one of the show’s writers, Richard Pryor. “See you Monday, motherfucker.”
Pryor bows. “Yassuh, massa.”
Flipping Pryor the bird, Flip strides through the soundstage to a loading bay behind the studio. Light spills from the loading-bay door to the hood of his car, a sky-blue Rolls-Royce Corniche convertible, top down. Flip’s two-ton road yacht has a 250-horsepower engine and a top speed of 115. Its license plates read KILLER. Its glove box holds a bag of pot and a vial of cocaine. Tossing his jacket onto the front seat along with a yellow legal pad, a script, and a paperback joke book, he climbs behind the wheel and peels out, saluting the guard at the NBC gate as he heads up Olive Avenue to the Ventura Freeway.
He barrels east through the last clots of rush-hour traf?c, through Glendale and Pasadena to the Barstow Freeway, dry wind shooting dust and bits of sand up the hood and over the windshield. He reaches up to feel the wind through his ?ngers. It feels like freedom. Another ninety-hour workweek done, another show in the can.
North of San Bernardino the freeway climbs four thousand feet to Cajon Pass, a notch between the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains. This is where covered wagons struggled west from Utah to Southern California a century before. The wagon trains averaged a mile per hour on a good day. Flip kicks the Rolls past ninety and pokes an eight-track tape into the dashboard, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. Stars emerge in the blue-black desert sky. The road ?attens out, arrowing through the cactus-studded Mojave. He drives to the rhythm of the music, rolling from right lane to left and back. Several hours out of L.A. he reaches for the amber vial in the glove box. He taps a pair of white dashes onto the back of his hand and sniffs up the powder. Now the stars look a shade brighter.
Just outside Needles he pulls into a truck stop, giving the attendant ?fty dollars to ?ll the tank. “Keep the change.”
The attendant says, “Hey, aren’t you—”
“Nope. He’s taller.”
There’s a bar nearby, a honky-tonk with beer signs ?ashing in the window. Flip parks, grabs his script and legal pad, and steps inside. He sees American ?ags at both ends of the bar, pinball games along the wall, and hears Johnny Cash on the jukebox. Three years ago he would have thought twice about coming in here, but fame changes everything. A couple guys at the bar, good ole boys in jeans and ?annel shirts, check out the new arrival. The black new arrival. One of them elbows the other. No shit?! They know him.
Flip asks the bartender, “What’s on tap?”
One of the drinkers says, “What you see is what you get!”
He takes a Schlitz to a corner booth and opens next week’s script. Soon he’s humming, alone with his show at last. He mumbles punch lines, underlines a few, crosses out others, jots notes in the margins. Reaching for his legal pad, he writes the setup for a sketch: GDINE=1ST LADY?? He’s getting a little tired of Geraldine, but what’s he supposed to do? She’s his meal ticket. He works and reworks the sketch until it’s a crosshatched, scrawled-up mess, just the way he likes it.
Two big-haired women hurry in, buzzing about the Rolls. A minute later they’re crowding his table. “Say something funny,” one says.
“Sorry. I’m off duty.”
Flip drops a twenty on the table. “I’m a professional entertainer. I don’t do my act in booths in bars. I’ll sign autographs if you’d like.”
“C’mon, do Geraldine. The devil made me buy this dress!”
He slips out the door as she says it again and again.
Kingman, Seligman, Ash Fork, Flagstaff—Arizona towns ? y by like the credits at the end of the show. Near the border of Arizona and Utah, just north of Bitter Springs, a side road leads to a high-desert gorge almost as deep as the Grand Canyon. This is his spot, a mile off the highway, 525 miles from the NBC lot. He found it on a previous drive when he took a wrong turn and almost drove into space two thousand feet over the Colorado River.
He parks at the barricade where the road dead-ends, a few yards from the canyon’s edge. Worn out by the show, the drive, the coke, the beer, and the weight of the choice he’s about to make, he stretches out in the front seat with his feet on the dash, looking up at the night sky, waiting. It won’t be long now.
"Candid and entertaining... Cook's fiercely honest biography captures the tumultuous and winning personality of the man."
"Flip Wilson was wonderful. His material advanced the possibility of human unity and hilarity."
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