Red Skelton was just seven years old when he met his destiny as a bumbling, affable comic. For six decades, 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 captivating TV audiences in 1951, Mr. 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, who died Wednesday, always signed off from his TV shows with his standard line: "Good night, and may God bless."
Unlike some of today's comics, Skelton was never vulgar. "Today's comics use four-letter words as a shortcut to thinking," Skelton said in 1987. "They're shooting for that big laugh, and it becomes a panic thing, using four-letter words to shock people."
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 a Wonderful Time," and the routine became one of his trademark bits.
Skelton was inspired by an early friendship with silent film star Buster Keaton, but his physical comedy style - with every pratfall he flashed a cockeyed grin - was honed more from the big top than Hollywood.
Skelton was featured in more than 30 movies, including "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 "Ziegfield 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.
"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."