Red Skelton

  • Born: July 18, 1913
  • Died: September 17, 1997
  • Location: Anza, California

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This is a July 20, 1991 file photo of Red Skelton, the sentimental clown who delighted TV audiences for 20 years playing Clem Kadiddlehopper, Freddie the Freeloader and the Mean Widdle Kid. He died Wednesday, Sept. 17, 1997. He was 84.

Comedian, who saw life through the eyes of a clown, dead at 84

Red Skelton was just 10 years old when he met his destiny as a bumbling, affable comic in a chance meeting with Ed Wynn. For six decades afterward, he delighted millions with a repertoire of helter-skelter pantomime and skits about simple ordinary lives seen through a clown's extraordinary prism.

Already a leading film comic when his buffoonish characters began entrancing TV audiences in 1951, Skelton made household names of Clem Kadiddlehopper, Freddie the Freeloader and the Mean Widdle Kid, whose favorite expression was "I dood it!"

The auburn-haired comedian died Wednesday at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, 90 miles east of Los Angeles, after a long, undisclosed illness. He was 84.

The son of a grocer who had worked as a circus clown, Skelton always signed off from his TV shows with his standard line: "Good night, and may God bless."

"Red ended his shows with a sincere `God bless,' but, in truth, we were the ones blessed by this extraordinary talented man. He created an unforgettable cast of characters, particularly during the quarter-century when he was a genuine TV superstar," said actress Carol Channing.

Unlike some of today's comedians, Skelton was never vulgar.

"Today's comics use four-letter words as a shortcut to thinking," Skelton told The Associated Press in 1987. "They're shooting for that big laugh and it becomes a panic thing, using four-letter words to shock people."

It was Wynn, whose comedy career also stretched from vaudeville to TV, who got Skelton interested in show business when he befriended him when touring in Skelton's Indiana hometown.

"In 1923, he came to Vincennes to do a show," Skelton said in 1986. "I was selling newspapers in the street when this man came up and asked me if I wanted to see the show." Wynn ended up buying all of Skelton's newspapers and giving him a ticket to the show, Skelton recalled.

"He took me back, introduced me to everyone, showed me the footlights," Skelton said. "I looked out through the peephole at the audience coming in and fell in love with show business."

A soggy doughnut left his audiences falling apart in laughter when Skelton got hold of it.

He once ducked into a Montreal coffee shop and watched as a tipsy patron tried to dunk his doughnut into a cup of coffee. Skelton parodied the scene in the 1938 film "Having Wonderful Time" and the routine became one of his trademark bits.

"He gave comedy a good name," said Bob Hope. "Dolores and I have lost a dear friend and our favorite clown."

"The world has lost a gem, an icon, an original," fellow TV comic Milton Berle said.

Who could forget the lovable characters Clem Kadiddlehopper, a slow-witted hayseed; Freddie the Freeloader, a silent tramp; punch-drunk boxer Cauliflower McPugg; the inebriated Willie Lump-Lump; henpecked husband George Appleby; and the cross-eyed seagulls Gertrude and Heathcliffe?

Skelton was inspired by an early friendship with silent film star Buster Keaton, but his physical comedy style _ with every pratfall he flashed a cock-eyed grin _ was honed more from the big top than Hollywood.

Skelton was featured in more than 30 movies, a few of them, such as "Watch the Birdie," loosely based on Keaton comedies and featuring Keaton gags. Skelton films included "Whistling in Dixie" in 1942, "The Clown" in 1953 and the 1965 film "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines." In the 1946 variety show "Ziegfeld Follies," he starred in the uproarious "Guzzler's Gin" sequence.

"Red's audience had no age limits; he was the consummate family entertainer _ a winsome clown, a storyteller without peer, a superb mime, a singer and a dancer," CBS, his network for 17 years, said in a statement.

Comedian Steve Allen saw "something about Red that was partly the little boy," a quality that made him "a great clown and remarkably funny even in his later years."

Skelton's longtime friend Jerry Lewis called him "a brilliant comedian."

Richard Bernard Skelton was born in rural Vincennes on July 18, 1913, two months after the death of his father, Joseph, a one-time clown with the Hagenbeck and Wallace Circus. Young Red later was hired by the same circus.

Widowed with four boys, Ida Skelton worked as a cleaning woman and elevator operator and taught her children to appreciate art. She sparked Skelton's interest in comedy by providing tickets to vaudeville shows on her meager salary.

After the meeting with Wynn, Skelton joined a medicine show traveling through the South and Midwest.

"Mom used to say I didn't run away from home _ my destiny just caught up with me at an early age," Skelton said.

Skelton joined the vaudeville circuit at age 15. Working at the Gaiety Theater in Kansas City in 1930, he met usher Edna Marie Stilwell and married her a year later. She became his vaudeville partner, writer and manager. When they divorced, she continued to manage his career.

In 1945, he married Georgia Davis and they had a daughter, Valentina, and a son, Richard, who died of leukemia at age 9. That marriage ended in divorce in 1973 and Skelton married his third wife, Lothian, later that year.

Arthur Marx, author of an unauthorized biography of Skelton published in 1979, said he expected to tell a "nice little tale about a comedian who said `God bless'" at the end of his show." Instead, he heard stories of a sad and lonely man who trusted no one and felt he had been cheated by some of his associates. He once said in an interview that if a person hurt him and his wife twice, he was forgiven, but "the third time, we light a candle, and he is, for us, dead."

Skelton's television career began on NBC in 1951. He moved to CBS in 1953, then returned to NBC in 1970.

Clowns remained his fortune, even after NBC canceled his show for good in 1971. His paintings of clown faces fetched $80,000 and more, and he once estimated he earned $2.5 million a year from lithographs. He also wrote and recorded scores of songs.

"I don't want to be called `the greatest' or `one of the greatest'; let other guys claim to be the best," Skelton once said. "I just want to be known as a clown because to me that's the height of my profession. It means you can do everything _ sing, dance, and above all, make people laugh."

He is survived by wife, Lothian, and daughter, Valentina.