By Peter Castro
Updated October 06, 1997 12:00 PM

THANKS TO RED SKELTON, ACTRESS and dancer Ann Miller’s first airplane trip is forever etched in her memory. Traveling with her mother in 1938, Miller, 74, who first met the comic as a 15-year-old ingenue (they would appear together in three films), recalls that “Red gave us a package and told us not to open it until the plane took off. It was beautifully wrapped. We finally opened it and inside was a lovely white leather book. And inside the book were photos of all the plane crashes Red could find! My mother and I were just horrified. Until we started to laugh.”

Making people laugh was always the object for Skelton, who was 84 when he died Sept. 17 of pneumonia at a hospital in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Between 1951 and 1971, after successful careers in vaudeville, radio and movies, Skelton won three Emmys while entertaining TV audiences with a hit squad of alter egos such as the Mean Widdle Kid, Clem Kadiddlehopper and Freddie the Freeloader. “Some of today’s comics have witty repartee, others are good in sketches, some are physical, and some never speak,” says Steve Allen, a friend of Skelton’s. “But Red could do all of the above. He was a natural clown.”

It was, in fact, his birthright. Skelton’s father, Joseph, was himself a circus clown (and alcoholic) who died two months before his son Richard Bernard—the youngest of four boys and the only redhead—was born July 18, 1913, in Vincennes, Ind. Left destitute, Skelton’s mother, Ida Mae, eked out a living as a cleaning woman. Red, as his brothers nicknamed him, began pitching in at age 7 by selling newspapers. He dropped out of school at 14 to sing “mammy” songs in blackface for a traveling minstrel show. “My mother let me go because we were hungry,” Skelton told the Chicago Tribune in 1990. “I was being paid $10 a week and thinking, Jeez, I’m a millionaire.”

After stints as a minstrel man on the Cotton Blossom, a showboat that cruised the Ohio and Missouri rivers, and as a clown with his dad’s Hagenbeck & Wallace Circus (“I just couldn’t resist,” he once said), Skelton turned to burlesque in the late 1920s, doing pratfalls, delivering comic monologues and honing his skills as a mime. In 1930, at age 17, he met a 15-year-old Kansas City usherette named Edna Marie Stillwell. They married two years later, and soon Edna was writing Skelton’s material and managing his career. His big break came in 1937 when he tore up the audience with his irreverent humor on crooner Rudy Vallee’s radio show. “[Edna’s material] was better than anything I could buy, steal or make up,” Skelton said.

Capitalizing on her husband’s growing fame, Edna negotiated a $l,500-a-week movie contract for him with MGM in 1938. After a couple of duds, he scored with the 1941 comedy-thriller Whistling in the Dark. Three years later, he costarred in chlorine queen Esther Williams’s aquatic debut Bathing Beauty. “For a swimming sequence, MGM asked Red to shave his chest,” recalls Williams. “Red’s eyes filled with tears and he said, ‘I don’t want to shave my chest—it shows I’m a real redhead. I’m going to call Edna.’ And Edna told him: ‘Tell them you’ll shave your chest for $200. But save the curls and I’ll put them in your scrapbook.’ ”

Saving their marriage wasn’t as simple, and in 1943 they divorced amicably. Edna continued to manage Skelton’s career and write for him and they both eventually remarried, Skelton to model Georgia Davis in 1945. Two years later their daughter Valentina was born; son Richard followed in 1948. When CBS offered Skelton his own variety show (after a brief stint with NBC), he said goodbye to the big screen (he had appeared in nearly 40 movies). The 60-minute broadcast premiered in 1953 and was an instant hit. “The thing Red always made a point of was that he’d get laughs without four-letter words,” says Bob Orben, one of the show’s writers. “He had a clean act, yet he appealed to all age groups.”

In 1958, at the height of Skelton’s career, 9-year-old Richard died of leukemia, devastating the comedian. “Red treated his son’s room in their Palm Springs house like a little museum,” says Arthur Marx, Groucho’s son, whose unauthorized biography of Skelton came out in 1979. “He had it cordoned off with a velvet rope so nobody could go in there.” Adds Arlene Dahl, who costarred with Skelton in three films: “The death of his child really did Red in. He idolized that boy.”

Neither Skelton nor Georgia ever got over their loss, and the couple divorced in 1973, the same year Skelton, then 60, married third wife Lothian Toland, a secretary 25 years his junior. Then, in 1976, on the 18th anniversary of Richard’s death, Georgia committed suicide.

That wrenching act capped a bad run for Skelton, during which CBS canceled the still highly rated Red Skelton Hour in 1970, deeming it too unhip. His ego bruised (“My heart was broken,” he once said of the dismissal), Skelton literally hit the stage, performing painful pratfalls and delighting sold-out audiences with his beloved stock characters in lucrative personal appearances that continued well into his 70s. He also began to sell his 1,000 or so oil paintings—all of clowns—for as much as $200,000 apiece. “I think he made more money from his paintings than he ever did on television,” says his art dealer of 20 years, Steven Addi. Indeed, Skelton once estimated that he earned $2.5 million a year from lithographs alone.

Laughter, though, is Skelton’s most lasting legacy. “Red influenced me so much,” says Seinfeld’s Michael Richards, who inducted Skelton, a boyhood idol, into the Comedy Hall of Fame in 1993. “When Jim Carrey and I worked nightclubs we used to talk about how one can get the laugh from doing a face. You don’t have to stand out there and go for the joke. That’s what I got from Red.”

Others, like Skelton’s Rancho Mirage neighbor former President Gerald Ford, derived joy simply from being around the carrot-topped clown. “The last time I saw Red was in early June,” says Ford, 84. “I was over to the Eisenhower Medical Center [where Skelton would die] and I ran into him on the elevator. He seemed in good spirits. I think Red was a happy man in his later years. He knew that his comedy would be forever applauded. So he was satisfied. He had a great career.”