Geraldine, Flip once said, "carried me longer than my mother did."
Flip was born Clerow Wilson, Jr. in New Jersey on Dec. 8, 1933. (The nickname "Flip" came from his Air Force days, when his rambling tales featuring different dialects led fellow airmen to conclude he was "flipping out.") His wasn't a happy childhood: His mother abandoned the family, leaving Flip and his 10 siblings with their father. The boy ended up in multiple foster homes, became a frequent runaway, and landed in reform school. Flip was eventually reunited with his father, who struggled to make ends meet. In later comedy routines, Flip would joke that his family was so poor that homeless people felt sorry for them, Cook said.
After the Air Force, Flip found a home in comedy. He traveled the country with his standup act, performing at clubs and hotels. Sometimes, the same hotels that allowed him to perform in their ballrooms refused to allow him to sleep in one of their guest rooms, Cook said. At one point during Flip's rise, singer Bobby Darin demanded that the comedian share the bill with him at a Las Vegas hotel. The two became lifelong friends.
Flip's big break came when his close friend Red Foxx was a guest on the Tonight Show in the mid-1960s. Host Johnny Carson asked Foxx to name the funniest comic currently working. Without a pause, Foxx said, "Flip Wilson."
Flip was immediately invited to perform on Carson's show. At the time, Carson was a star maker: If he liked Flip, there was no telling how far he could go.
On the night Flip was scheduled to appear, he ended up getting bumped for time. They rescheduled, and he was bumped again. And then the third time was the charm.
Flip took the stage and performed his "ugly baby" routine . (It's still on YouTube.com.) After he finished, the camera panned to Carson, who was flopping around with laughter. "That was one of the funniest lines I ever heard in my life," Carson said.