December 14, 1998 12:00 PM

By his own admission, Flip Wilson owed a considerable chunk of his fame and fortune to Geraldine Jones, his distaff alter ego. Jones, a wisecracking ghetto queen, introduced such catch-phrases as “the devil made me do it” and “what you see is what you get” into the national lexicon in the early ’70s. “Geraldine,” he once said, “carried me longer than my mother did.”

But while the comedian will forever be identified with that brassy, be-wigged bundle of sass, Wilson, who died Nov. 25 of liver cancer at age 64 at his Malibu home, played some of his best pranks out of drag. “Once in the early ’70s we met in first class on a 747 flying from L.A. to New York,” says his friend, actor Pat Morita (The Karate Kid). “When the salad gurneys came out, he jumps up and says, ‘Let’s serve the cheap seats! I’ll get this aisle, you get that one.’ And we served people until the salad ran out. To the coach passengers we were heroes, and nobody in first class got salad that flight. That was typical Flip. He breathed funny.”

And for years, everyone laughed. As the star of NBC’s The Flip Wilson Show (1970-74), Wilson was television’s first successful black variety show host, earning more than a million dollars a year. His groundbreaking sketches, featuring such characters as Geraldine and the Reverend Leroy of the Church of What’s Happening Now, earned him writing Emmys in 1971 and 1972. “Flip was a kind of everyman, like Chaplin,” says series producer Bob Henry. “He was a natural talent. His monologues were his. He wrote them—Geraldine, Rev. Leroy, the invisible dog on a leash. All his.”

Born Clerow Wilson, one of 13 children of Clerow Wilson, a handyman, and his wife, Cornelia, the Jersey City, N.J., native found his calling at age 5 when his father took him to see the comedy team Stump and Stumpy. “When I heard the roar of the laughter, a voice in me went off,” he told PEOPLE in 1997. “I thought, ‘That’s what I want to be.’ ” But the laughter stopped two years later when his mother abandoned the family. “Flip never forgave her,” says Henry, “not really. Deep down he was humiliated.”

In and out of foster homes over the next several years, Wilson quit school in eighth grade and in 1950, lying about his age (he was just 16), joined the Air Force. There his knack for flipping people out with his clowning earned him his nickname. Following his discharge in 1954 as an airman first class, he worked as a $40-a-week bellhop at a San Francisco hotel, where he persuaded the manager to let him try out his comedy act at the in-house nightclub. Soon he was traveling cross-country, gigging in small dives and building a following. “He was a genteel, very sweet man,” says Mitzy Shore, owner of the Comedy Store, an L.A. club where Wilson performed. “A black comedian everyone felt comfortable with. You could just see him sparkle.”

In 1965, an endorsement by Redd Foxx while Foxx was being interviewed by Johnny Carson won Wilson a spot on The Tonight Show. Other high-profile TV appearances—Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and The Ed Sullivan Show—followed, and a hit 1969 special led to The Flip Wilson Show in 1970. The series was a Top 10 success, but he quit in 1974 to focus on fatherhood. “The devil didn’t make me do it,” he said last year. “I was a huge hero to everybody else’s kids, but my own didn’t know me.” It turned out to be a winning move. “I think there was a bonding between us,” says his daughter Stacey, now 28 and a nurse. “We know he loved us.”

Despite Wilson’s commitment to family, it was not exactly his area of expertise. He had two failed marriages (to Peaches, a dancer he met, married and divorced in 1957, and to Cookie Mackenzie, his wife from 1979 to 1985) and a string of failed relationships (most notably with Blonell Pittman, the mother of his children and his common-law wife throughout the ’60s). And in his final years, he was estranged from his two sons, David, 38, a onetime golf pro who has been a quadriplegic since a 1993 motorcycle accident, and Kevin, 36, a caddy. In addition to Stacey, Wilson has another daughter, Tamara, 31, an actress, and remained close to Pittman’s daughter, Michelle, 42, a jewelry designer who was at his side when he died.

Wilson’s life was complicated further by a rumored drug habit and a 1981 arrest for cocaine possession. (The charges were dropped after a judge ruled that the evidence was obtained illegally.) Although the incident cost him a Seven-Up endorsement deal, he shrugged it off. “You can either laugh or drown in the misery,” he said. “I’m laughing.” He also immersed himself in his twin passions, riding Harley-Davidson motorcycles and piloting hot-air and helium balloons. “If I’m up off the ground or moving fast on the road,” he said, “there’s less possibility of me getting in trouble.”

At least in theory. During one balloon excursion with Cookie in 1983, she broke both her legs when the balloon crash-landed and a man fell on her. When the couple divorced two years later, Wilson tempered his financial loss with humor. “He’d say, ‘Most people get their fortune out of a cookie. I gave mine to a Cookie,’ ” says Frank Prell, a Florida developer who, as Wilson’s ballooning buddy for 18 years, witnessed his big-spender ways. “His tipping was over the top,” he says. “Besides his usual $100 to waitresses, he’d double it if their name was Geraldine. And if it was their birthday, he’d add another $100.”

By the mid-’80s, though, television audiences were less generous. Wilson’s career had nose-dived with his two mid-decade flops, People Are Funny (1984) and Charlie & Co. (1985-86). Still, he remained financially solvent, thanks to wise investments, and recently was toying with the idea of a small-scale comeback. But ultimately, he was happiest resting peacefully on his laurels at his two-bedroom Malibu home. “I’ve had all that you could ask for,” he said last year. “The fat lady has sung, and there’s a standing ovation.”

Jeremy Helligar

Ron Arias and John Griffiths in Los Angeles

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