Bitter about TV, he’d burn his old shows rather than sell them for reruns
The Spandex little-boy grin still stretches from sideburn to sideburn, but the hair has gone gray, and Red Skelton carries a cane these days, his legacy from a lifetime of pratfalls. “A clown’s legs go first,” says Red, who’s 66 in the almanacs but now confesses to be “in my 70s.” Yet battered legs have hardly slowed him. He still plays the club and campus circuit, and last month he and wife Lothian, 42, flew to Hawaii to raise the curtain on his latest creation—12 new oil paintings. What was once an off-hours hobby is contributing to a rich old age. Today Skelton’s clown portraits sell for up to $40,000 apiece and hang in the homes of Burt Reynolds, Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope. (Autographed reproductions go for $295.)
Red began his art career modestly enough by cleaning the school paint pots back home in Vincennes, Ind. and scraping leftovers into jars for himself. “I cut hunks of my hair off and tied them to pencils and sticks for brushes,” he reminisces. “I got a lot of hair on my pictures, but I learned to paint.”
He put aside that dabbling at 10 and began drawing crowds as a guitar-playing shill in a medicine show. His circus clown father died just before Richard Skelton was born, and his mother worked as a vaudeville-house char-woman. Young Red moved on to carnivals and circuses, riverboats and burlesque houses, then starred in radio and some 40 movies before becoming a TV fixture. For two decades he mixed slapstick and pathos, and created indelible characters like Clem Kaddiddlehopper. He earned $1 million-plus a year.
Out of the spotlight, the laughs were harder to come by. Skelton divorced his first wife, Edna Stilwell, in 1945. She continued as his manager until 1950, by which time he had married Georgia Davis and fathered a daughter, Valentina, and son, Richard. The boy died of leukemia, and Red, who had regularly performed in children’s hospitals, no longer had the heart to. The tragedy also led the grief-stricken mother into a morass of pills and alcohol and, in 1971, a divorce from Red. Five years later (and 18 years to the day after her son’s death), Georgia committed suicide.
Having abandoned his 27-room Bel Air mansion for the Palm Springs area, Skelton married Lothian, the daughter of cinematographer Gregg (Citizen Kane) Toland, in 1973. He had shrewdly tied up TV rights to his movies before such deals were standard and was already set for life. Red’s still writing commercials for Skoal tobacco and background music for Muzak and owns a consortium of businesses, several race horses and a fleet of 16 cars, including seven Rolls-Royces. So it barely fazes him that what he calls “bad advice” from lawyers will cost him $1.2 million in back taxes this year, though he counsels future stars: “Study law for an hour a day.”
Skelton has directed that the original kinescopes and tapes of his TV programs be burned upon his own death. “I worked hard to make them,” he explains, “and they’re not going on the market for someone else to use.” That would be a tragic loss, and Red says he would reconsider if he gets the right home video cassette offer. His real pique is at commercial TV, which he boycotts as too violent. “It isn’t entertainment anymore,” he says. “It’s propaganda to create fear.” (Red has one special in the can, though, for Home Box Office pay-TV.)
Among contemporary comics, Skelton admires David Brenner, Steve Martin and old (84) friend George Burns. “His humor is about age,” says Skelton. “We all laugh, but we lie when we do.”