As the 1970’s began….the networks began a major campaign to discontinue long-running shows that they considered stale or lacking youth appeal….so, despite Skelton’s continued strong ratings….CBS saw his show as fitting into this category and cancelled the program along with other comedy and variety shows hosted by veterans such as Jackie Gleason and Ed Sullivan. Performing in Las Vegas when he got the news of his CBS cancellation, Skelton said, “My heart has been broken.”….as his program had been one of the top ten highest rated shows for 17 of the 20 years he was on television….that is when Skelton moved to NBC in 1970 in a half-hour Monday night version of his former show. Its cancellation after one season ended his television career….and being forever the entertainer….he returned to live performances….and in an effort to prove the networks wrong….he gave many of these at colleges….which proved popular with the audiences….however, Skelton was bitter about CBS’s cancellation for many years afterwards….believing the demographic and salary issues to be irrelevant….he accused CBS of bowing to the anti-establishment, anti-war faction at the height of the Vietnam War….saying his conservative political and social views caused the network to turn against him….as he had invited prominent Republicans, including Vice President Spiro Agnew and Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen, to appear on his program.
There were personal as well as professional changes taking place in Skelton’s life at this time. He divorced Georgia in 1971 and married Lothian Toland….daughter of cinematographer Gregg Toland, on October 7, 1973….while he disassociated himself from television soon after his show was cancelled….his bitterness had subsided enough for him to appear on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson on July 11, 1975….for it was his first television appearance since he no longer had a television program. Johnny Carson, one of his former writers, began his rise to network television prominence by substituting for Skelton after his dress rehearsal injury in 1954.Skelton was also a guest on The Merv Griffin Show in October of the same year. Any hopes he may have had to ease back into television through the talk show circuit came to an abrupt halt on May 10, 1976….when ex-wife Georgia Skelton committed suicide by gunshot on the 18th anniversary of Richard Skelton’s death. Georgia was 54 and had been in poor health for some time. He put all professional activities on hold for some months as he mourned his former wife’s death.
Skelton made plans in 1977 to sell the rights to his old television programs as part of a package which would bring him back to regular television appearances. The package called for him to produce one new television show for every three older episodes….as this appeared to have never materialized. In 1980, he was taken to court by 13 of his former writers over a story that his will called for the destruction of recordings of all his old television shows upon his death.Skelton contended his remarks were made at a time when he was very unhappy with the television industry and were taken out of context. He said at the time, “Would you burn the only monument you’ve built in over 20 years?”As the owner of the television shows….Skelton initially refused to allow them to be syndicated as reruns during his lifetime. In 1983, Group W announced that it had come to terms with him for the rights to rebroadcast some of his original television programs from 1966 through 1970….and some of his earlier shows were made available after Skelton’s death.
Skelton’s 70-year career as an entertainer began as a stage performer. He retained a fondness for theaters as he referred to them as “palaces”….which he also likened them to his “living room”….where he would privately entertain guests. At the end of a performance, he would look at the empty stage where there was now no laughter or applause and tell himself, “Tomorrow I must start again. One hour ago, I was a big man. I was important out there. Now it’s empty. It’s all gone.”
Skelton was invited to play a four week date at the London Palladium in July 1951. While flying to the engagement, Skelton, Georgia and Father Edward J. Carney, were on a plane from Rome with passengers from an assortment of countries that included 11 children. The plane lost the use of two of its four engines and seemed destined to lose the rest….which meant that the plane would crash over Mont Blanc. The priest readied himself to administer last rites….and as he did so….he told Skelton, “You take care of your department, Red, and I’ll take care of mine.”….so Skelton diverted the attention of the passengers with pantomimes while Father Carney prayed. They ultimately landed at a small airstrip in Lyon, France…..where he received both an enthusiastic reception and an invitation to return for the Palladium’s Christmas show of that year.…for in truth….this was America’s Clown Prince at his best.
Though Skelton had always done live engagements at Nevada hotels….and appearances such as state fairs during his television show’s hiatus….he focused his time and energy on live performances after he was no longer on the air….performing up to 125 dates a year. He often arrived days early for his engagement and would serve as his own promotion staff by making the rounds of the local shopping malls. Before the show, his audiences received a ballot listing about 100 of his many routines and were asked to tick off their favorites. The venue’s ushers would collect the ballots and tally the votes….then Skelton’s performance on that given day was based on the skits his audience selected.After he learned that his performances were popular with the hearing-impaired because of his heavy use of pantomimes….Skelton hired a sign language interpreter to translate the non-pantomime portions of his act forall his shows. He continued performing live until 1993, when he celebrated his 80th birthday.
In 1974, Skelton’s interest in film work was rekindled with the news that Neil Simon’s comedy The Sunshine Boys would become a movie…which would be his last significant film appearance had been in Public Pigeon No. 1 in 1956. He screen tested for the role of Willy Clark with Jack Benny….who had been cast as Al Lewis.….and although Simon had planned to cast Jack Albertson….who played Willy on Broadway in the same role for the film…. Skelton’s screen test impressed him enough to change his mind. Skelton declined the part, however, reportedly due to an inadequate financial offer and Benny’s final illness forced him to withdraw as well….to which George Burns and Walter Matthau ultimately starred in the film.
In 1981, Skelton made several specials for HBO including Freddie the Freeloader’s Christmas Dinner (1981) and the Funny Faces series of specials.He gave a Royal Command Performance for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in 1984….which was later shown in the U.S. on HBO. A portion of one of his last interviews conducted by Steven F. Zambo….was broadcast as part of the 2005 PBS special The Pioneers of Primetime.
Skelton died on September 17, 1997, at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, California at the age of 84….after what was described as “a long, undisclosed illness”. He is interred in the Skelton Family Tomb alongside his son, Richard Freeman Skelton, Jr. and his second wife, Georgia Maureen Davis Skelton in The Great Mausoleum’s Sanctuary of Benediction at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.