Red Skelton, the rubber-faced harlequin and pantomimist whose antics delighted stage, radio, film and television audiences with such characters as Clem Kadiddlehopper, Freddie the Freeloader and the Mean Widdle Kid, died Wednesday. He was 84.
He had been in declining health for several years before he died at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage.
Skelton was the quintessential clown. In his later years he even painted clown faces, earning more than $80,000 for a single canvas and about $2.5 million a year from lithographs.
His career spanned six decades, encompassed all media, made him a multimillionaire and a star in every form of entertainment from burlesque to television to the art gallery.
His waning years were spent at the easel and on stage with about 75 performances a year. But modern audiences remember him most as a pioneering television comedian. He was on the small screen from 1951 until 1971, for NBC and CBS, until viewers' changing tastes dictated cancellation.
"Red was a wonderful, wonderful man. His work was fantastic. He was a treasure," said fellow television comedian Sid Caesar.
Another vaudeville and television contemporary, Milton Berle, said, "We lost a great entertainer, a great comedian, and I lost a very, very dear friend."
"Entertainment has lost a classic," said musical comedy star Carol Channing. "He created an unforgettable cast of characters, particularly . . . when he was a genuine TV superstar. Through it all, Red retained a clear, human personality that warmed his audiences whether on radio, TV, the stage or in the movies."
Skelton's audiences felt entertained, uplifted and at peace when he ended each show with his trademark line: "Good night, and God bless."
He continued to appear as guest and host of television specials through 1995, when he was on "Inside the Dream Factory." Skelton was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1988.
His acceptance of the Governors Award from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences at the Emmy Awards show in 1986 was bittersweet. "I want to thank you for sitting down," he said as the audience, which had given him a standing ovation, took their seats. "I thought you were pulling a CBS and walking out on me."
A year later, the Screen Actors Guild recognized his work in 43 motion pictures by granting him its achievement award for his outstanding career and his charitable contributions. He was particularly known for his support of children's charities, including the Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children and the Red Skelton Foundation in his hometown of Vincennes, Ind.
Evoking Tears and Laughter
In an age of prefabricated biography and press agent flamboyance, Skelton was one character who no writer--whether of comedy or tragedy--could have invented.
"I don't want to be called 'the greatest' or 'one of the greatest'; let other guys claim to be the best," he 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."
Skelton had two attributes that set him apart: a talent for mime that could and did transcend the barrier of language, and the gift of evoking tears as readily as laughter--matchless abilities that are the hallmark of all great clowns.
He came by both honestly. They were his birthright--and only legacy--from a clown named Joseph Skelton who died two months before Red was born. The death of Joe, an alcoholic, left his wife, Ida, and her four sons penniless. Ida supported her family by scrubbing floors.
The two-room house in Vincennes, where Richard Bernard Skelton was born July 18, 1913, is a minor museum today, officially designated as the birthplace of the city's most famous son.
Young Richard went to work when he was 7 years old, selling newspapers on the street. At the age of 10, he got his first taste of professional show business when a snake oil purveyor named Doc Lewis hired him as an assistant--to do nothing more glamorous than fall off the stage.
Although Red's activities were originally restricted to a once-per-show tumble into the bottled goods, he advanced to doing a turn as a blackface singer and even telling an occasional joke.
Two years later, Red completed the seventh grade and was convinced that this was all the education anyone could require. He had stolen his elder brother's birth certificate, and was ready, at the end of the medicine show's summer season, to seek more advanced employment.
He was hired by the John Lawrence stock company, which put on tent shows, as a dramatic actor at $15 a week. But he never managed to collect his first week's salary.
"The audiences just wouldn't cooperate," he explained. "They laughed, only they weren't supposed to. So I was canned."
In the Center Ring
He worked in a minstrel show and then got a job on the Cotton Blossom, a showboat plying the Ohio and Missouri rivers.