Hollywood has seen the coming and going of many comic geniuses, but only a select few have been as universally beloved as gentle, low-key Red Skelton and his cavalcade of characters that included the clown Freddie the Freeloader, the goofy Clem Kadiddlehopper, and his seagulls Gertrude and Heathcliffe. That many of his best characters were clowns comes as no surprise for Skelton's father was a circus clown who died two months before Skelton was born Bernard Richard Skelton in Vincennes, IN. Skelton's mother was a charwoman and barely earned enough for them to get by. They were so poor that the comedian began singing for pennies on the street when he was only seven. At age ten, Skelton quit school and joined a traveling medicine show. He gained further experience on the burlesque and vaudeville circuits and on showboats. He became a standup comic in the early '30s, playing one-night gigs in small nightclubs.
His big break came after he developed a mimed donut-dunking routine that led to his employment at the Paramount Theater and then to a successful radio career and a long-running show during which he developed most of his characters. Skelton made his screen debut playing Itchy Falkner in Having a Wonderful Time (1938). He billed himself as Richard "Red" Skelton. Contracted to MGM during the '40s and '50s, Skelton played character roles and the occasional lead in numerous films, many of which were musicals and comedies. In 1951, Skelton launched a variety show that would alternately air on CBS and NBC until 1971. It was there that Skelton developed his characters and gained his most devoted following. Each show would begin with Skelton holding an unlit cigar and offering a warm greeting and doing a brief monologue; it would also contain a "silent spot" in which Skelton demonstrated his mastery of pantomime. All of the characters he created on radio made regular appearances, as did a brand new one, Freddy the Freeloader, a silent clown who could be as pathetic as he was funny. Musical accompaniment was provided by David Rose and his orchestra. Rose had been with Skelton since his radio days. From the series' beginning to its end, Skelton would finish his show with a heartfelt "Good night and God Bless." Throughout the program's long, extraordinarily successful (it was never out of the Top Ten in the Nielsen ratings-run), Skelton occasionally appeared in feature films. In 1953, he played a rare dramatic role in The Clown, which was a remake of The Champ. Skelton had his final starring role in Public Pigeon No. One (1957). After that he made cameos and guest star appearances in films such Those magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965).
In addition to performing, Skelton excelled at several other interests. That he was a renowned oil painter of clowns is well known, but he also designed dishes and was an expert at creating bonsai trees. Skelton also composed about 8,000 songs, including the theme for the film Made in Paris (1966). For his lifetime of contributions in entertainment he was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Literature from Emerson College of Boston, a Doctor of Human Letters from Vincennes University, and a doctorate of Theater Arts at Indiana State University. Skelton was a 33rd Degree Mason, the order's highest possible level. He also frequently contributed to children's charities. Though no longer a regular in films and television, Skelton continued performing live until his death from pneumonia at age 84.