Skelton, Red (1913-1997)

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Skelton, Red (1913-1997)

One of television's most popular comedians, Red Skelton is most fondly remembered for The Red Skelton Show, which ran on NBC from 1951-1953, and then on CBS from 1953-1970 (with a brief return to NBC for the 1970-1971 season). A very likeable personality and gifted pantomimist, Skelton also starred in a series of comedy films and had a career filled with contradictions. Noted writer Ross Wetzsteon once commented, Skelton was "a mime whose greatest success was on the radio. A folk humorist in the years when American entertainment was becoming urban. A vulgar knockabout at a time when American comedy was becoming sophisticated and verbal. A naïve ne'er-do-well in the age of the self-conscious schlemiel. Red Skelton's career is a study in how to miss every trend that comes down the pike."

Skelton was born Richard Bernard Skelton in 1913 (few sources list 1910), and was the son of a circus clown with the Haggenback and Wallace circus. His father died before he was born, and he grew up in punishing poverty. Active in show business from the age of 10, Skelton trained in stock companies, tent shows, burlesque, and vaudeville. In the 1930s, he stumbled upon a formula for finding humor in people's idiosyncracies and displaying his gift for pantomime, developing his famous routine on the different ways people dunked their doughnuts—he later performed this bit for a two-reel short, The Broadway Buckaroo. Skelton developed much of this material with the help of his wife Edna, who served as his manager, writer, and foil for many years.

Skelton started his film career in 1938 when RKO hired him to perform some of his vaudeville routines for Having a Wonderful Time. In the film Skelton plays Itchy Faulkner, the entertainment director of a resort camp in the Catskill Mountains, and performed a routine about the different ways people walk up a flight of stairs. RKO, however, expressed no continued interest in his services. But in 1940, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) assigned Skelton to appear as comedy relief in Flight Command and two Dr. Kildare films, but his first starring role and real breakthrough came when he got the lead role of Wally Benton, also known as the radio comic "The Fox," who solves mysteries in a remake of Whistling in the Dark (1941). Ace comedy writer Nat Perrin added a bounty of snappy lines for Skelton, and a brief film series of Whistling films was launched, which while not wildly funny are unpretentious and diverting, and they represent Skelton's best film work—the other films in the series were Whistling in Dixie (1942) and Whistling in Brooklyn (1943).

Despite its resources, MGM had difficulty in figuring out how to present their new property, often relegating their new star to more minor comedy relief roles. He was given brief routines in a number of elaborate MGM productions, including Neptune's Daughter (1949), Three Little Words (1950), Texas Carnival (1951), and Lovely to Look At (1952), but was most notable in Bathing Beauty (1944), where he performed a routine about a woman getting up in the morning, and Ziegfield Follies (1946), where his Guzzler's Gin routine was rechristened "When Television Comes" and represented the comic highlight of this kitchen sink film.

Skelton had his own radio series from 1941 until 1953, where he developed the characters he was most noted for, including Junior (the Mean Widdle Kid), Freddie the Freeloader, Clem Kadiddlehopper, George Appleby, Sheriff Deadeye, Willy Lump Lump, Cauliflower McPugg, Cookie the Sailor, San Fernando Red, Bolivar Shagnasty, and others.

Skelton served for a time in the army, and his return vehicles at MGM proved unfunny flops (The Show-off [1946] and Merton of the Movies [1947]). One of Skelton's better efforts, Vincent Minelli's I Dood It (1943), was loosely based on Buster Keaton's MGM film Spite Marriage (1929). Skelton developed a good relationship with the out-of-work and underutilized Keaton who supplied him with advice about comedy and worked with Skelton on some of his better efforts, notably A Southern Yankee (1948) and The Yellow Cab Man (1950) both of which credited former Keaton director Edward Sedgwick as "comedy consultant" to keep the resistant front office from getting suspicious. Keaton pinpointed a problem with A Southern Yankee right away, noting that when the film began, Skelton, who plays a bumbling northern spy down South, acted like an imbecile and alienated the audience, and so the scenes were re-shot to tone down Skelton's nutty behavior. Keaton also contributed the classic gag where Skelton wears a uniform that is half-Union and half-Confederate, strolling between the two sides to cheers until the charade is discovered.

In The Yellow Cab Man, Skelton played a would-be inventor of unbreakable glass and other "safety" devices, and featured a classic routine about Skelton's first day at driving a cab. He was also loaned out to Columbia for The Fuller Brush Man (1948), where he played a door-to-door salesman who becomes involved in a murder, which was successful enough to spawn a follow-up, The Fuller Brush Girl (1950), starring Lucille Ball, in which Skelton made brief appearance. One of Skelton's most memorable quips occurred on the occasion of Columbia head Harry Cohen's death. When someone remarked on the large number of people who turned out for the hated studio head's funeral, Skelton returned, "Give the people what they want, and they'll come out for it."

Skelton's true medium, however, turned out to be television as his remaining film comedies proved rather lackluster. His final film appearance was in a series of comedy sketches at the beginning of The Daring Young Men and Their Flying Machines where Skelton mimed various aviation pioneers and their unsuccessful efforts. It was on television where Skelton was most popular and most beloved.

One of Skelton's earliest writers was legendary television host Johnny Carson, who got his first on-camera big break when Skelton knocked himself unconscious one day during rehearsal and Carson was quickly summoned to fill in—CBS liked his appearance enough to offer him his own show in 1955.

Skelton was an inveterate ad libber, much to the consternation of his guest stars who expected him to follow the script (Tim Burton's movie Ed Wood (1994) captures the confusion of Bela Lugosi when he appeared on the show). Skelton delighted in getting his guest stars to break up on camera. The rock band the Rolling Stones made one of their earliest television appearances on Skelton's show.

As his professional life was soaring, however, his personal life turned grim. His nine-year-old son Richard Jr. died of leukemia and his second wife tried to commit suicide. Skelton's work became more maudlin and he began losing his audience. He spent his declining years painting a large series of clown faces which were sold in art galleries across the country. These paintings proved enormously lucrative. He died from pneumonia in 1997 at his home in Rancho Mirage, California.

With his television episodes rarely revived, Skelton is in danger of becoming increasingly forgotten, which is a pity because he was a talented comic with a genuinely inspired gift of mimicry. His gifts put him in the same league as Marcel Marceau. One of the most popular comics of the 1940s and 1950s, he was awarded a Golden Globe for Best Television Series in 1959, and received a Cecil B. DeMille Golden Globe years later, as well as a Governor's award from the Emmys in honor of his contributions.

—Dennis Fischer

Further Reading:

Maltin, Leonard. The Great Movie Comedians. Harmony Books, 1982.

Siegel, Scott, and Barbara Siegel. American Film Comedy. Prentice Hall, 1994.