Flip Wilson, who became the first successful black host of a television variety show with his turns as sassy Geraldine, the Rev. Leroy and other characters he mined for ethnic humor, died Wednesday night. He was 64.
Wilson died of liver cancer Wednesday night at his Malibu home with his daughter, Michelle, by his side, said Angie Hill, the comedian's assistant. He had undergone surgery Oct. 2 for a malignant tumor that was close to his liver.
"He passed very peacefully in his sleep," Ms. Hill said.
NBC's hit "The Flip Wilson Show" showcased the comedian's talents and brought a rare black voice, if sometimes stereotypical one, to TV during its 1970-74 run.
While breakthrough actors like Bill Cosby on "I Spy" and Diahann Carroll in "Julia" had roles that downplayed their racial identity, Wilson reveled in such characters as Leroy, pastor of the "Church of What's Happening Now," who Wilson said was based on a preacher he listened to as a child.
"I was very impressed with him, and I was always amazed that he wasn't well educated," he said in a 1971 New York Daily News interview. "But in his simple way, he was dynamic and exciting."
Geraldine, with Wilson in wig, high heels and a colorful minidress, was perhaps his most famous character. Her spunky catch phrases "The devil made me do it" and "What you see is what you get!" became part of the national language.
"The secret of my success with Geraldine is that she's not a putdown of women," he once said. "She's smart, she's trustful, she's loyal, she's sassy. Most drag impersonations are a drag. But women can like Geraldine, men can like Geraldine, everyone can like Geraldine."
His humor was rarely political, but in interviews he spoke of his admiration for black politicians such as Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes and Georgia legislator Julian Bond.
As for racism in the world of television, he said in 1971, "It would be ridiculous for me to say anything negative regarding blacks having an equal opportunity on TV. After all, I was number one in the ratings four times last year and twice this season."
Clerow Wilson was born into poverty on Dec. 8, 1933, in Jersey City, N.J., and raised in foster homes, quitting school at 16. He served four years in the Air Force, and earned the nickname "Flip" for his irreverent humor when he began entertaining the troops.
Discharged in 1954, Wilson spent more than a decade working at odd jobs and developing a comedy act in small clubs. When Hollywood began to seek out black entertainers in the '60s, his career took up an upward turn.
Wilson made his TV debut on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" in 1965, and that led to frequent appearances on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "Laugh-In" and on comedy series including "Love, American Style."
A variety pecial in which he starred in September 1968 led to his own series, which earned him an Emmy for performing and one for writing in 1971. It took competition from a new drama, "The Waltons," to knock Wilson's show down in the ratings and off the air.
The comedian was divorced about the time his show ended and he won custody of his four children.
"I wanted to devote the same amount of time to my kids as I had to the show," he said in a 1985 interview with The Associated Press.
He ended his absence from TV with guest appearances and then with two series: the 1984 quiz show "People Are Funny," on which he was host, and the 1985 CBS' sitcom "Charlie & Company," which co-starred singer Gladys Knight. Both shows were short-lived.
He is survived by sons Kevin and David, and daughters Stacey, Tamara and Michelle.
©1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed