Wilson was orphaned when he was eight. (Another version of his life states that his mother deserted the family when he was five and his father, unable to cope with a large family alone, placed them in foster homes.) He had a difficult childhood after that, living in a succession of foster homes and including a spell in reform school, where he was with his brothers.
He joined the US Air Force when he was 16, and it was there that his performing career began. After leaving the Air Force he worked as a bellhop in a hotel, where he also started as a stage comedian. He went on to night clubs, three television series and three films. The high point of his career was the top-rated 1970-74 NBC TV series The Flip Wilson Show.
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