Born Richard Bennett Skelton in 1910 in Vincennes, Indiana, he was singing for money in the street at the age of seven. His father, a circus clown, died when he was two months old, and his mother worked as a charlady (Red was the youngest of her four sons). The poverty-stricken family lived in an attic, and Skelton left school at the age of 10 to join a medicine show, spending the rest of his youth entertaining wherever he could find an audience - showboats, minstrel shows, circuses, burlesque theatres. He graduated from burlesque to the more respectable music-halls when he formed a double act with a former usher, Edna Stillwell (they married in 1931).
It was a long apprenticeship, but eventually, on the strength of a doughnut- dunking routine he developed, he was given a spot in the Paramount Theatre, New York, in 1937 which led to his radio debut on the Rudy Vallee show. Listeners loved his act, and a year later he had become popular enough to be given the job of MC for the launch of President Roosevelt's infantile paralysis campaign in Washington.
He made his film debut in 1938 (as Richard Skelton) in the RKO film Having Wonderful Time, performing his doughnut-dunking routine as part of his role as a summer-camp entertainer, and followed this with appearances in some Vitaphone shorts. MGM signed him to a contract in 1941, and after trying him out in supporting roles, notably as a well-meaning but slow- witted orderly in two Dr Kildare films, gave him the leading role of the Fox, a radio detective who finds himself involved in a real-life adventure, in Whistling in the Dark (1941). The slapstick comedy-thriller was a hit, and MGM starred Skelton in two sequels, Whistling in Dixie (1942) and Whistling in Brooklyn (1943) - all three had Ann Rutherford as his leading lady.
The film version of Cole Porter's Broadway hit Panama Hattie (1943) demonstrated the studio's regard for their new comedy star - in the second part of the film its musical aspects are forgotten for the extended haunted-house antics of Skelton and his cohorts Rags Ragland and Ben Blue. Skelton was then given the plum role of a cloakroom attendant who dreams he is King Louis to Lucille Ball's DuBarry in a lavish Technicolor musical, DuBarry was a Lady (1943), another much-bowdlerised Cole Porter show. Gene Kelly was the romantic lead, but the film was dominated by Skelton (in a role created by Bert Lahr on Broadway) and Ball.
Co-starred with Eleanor Powell in I Dood It (1943, a loose remake of Keaton's Spite Marriage), Skelton had a particularly funny scene in which he tries to deal with a drugged, completely comatose and seemingly rubber- limbed Powell. This was one of many ideas which had earlier been used in films of Buster Keaton and which the great silent star, then working as a gagman at MGM, reworked for Skelton. Though the two men's styles were totally dissimilar, Keaton later stated that he loved working with Skelton, and the two became good friends.
In the all-star Thousands Cheer (1943), Skelton did a guest spot competing with the child star Margaret O'Brien to eat the most ice-cream. Bathing Beauty (1944) was the first film to star the swimming champion Esther Williams, who later generously acknowledged Skelton's popularity: "I was lucky to have Red in my first big movie, because he was such a box- office draw." An enormous success, the film featured a classic Skelton routine (devised by Keaton) in which, having enrolled in a girls' school to be near his wife, he is forced to take ballet lessons (complete with tutu) and makes increasingly desperate efforts to free himself of a persistently adhesive chocolate wrapper while dancing.
Skelton was now at the peak of his film career, and his show Red Skelton's Scrapbook of Satire had been judged the third most popular programme on radio (the first two being The Bob Hope Show and Fibber McGee and Molly). In Ziegfeld Follies (1946), Skelton put on film his "Guzzler's Gin" routine (retitled "When Television Comes"). Shot in just one day and directed by George Sidney, the sketch had originally been written by Edna for Skelton's first radio show, and had also been used for Skelton's MGM screen test (shot by Sidney). It remains a potent piece of perfectly honed clowning.
Then Skelton tried for pathos as the braggart hero of The Show-Off (1946), based on George Kelly's play, but audiences were not happy with his low- key characterisation, and his portrayal of a simple- minded movie fan in a screen version of the George S. Kaufman/Marc Connelly play Merton of the Movies (1947) also met with a tepid response, so it was back to slapstick with The Fuller Brush Man (1948) as a door-to-door salesman involved in murder.
This was made while he was on loan to Columbia as MGM tried to find suitable scripts. Keaton allegedly asked Louis B. Mayer to let him work with Skelton as an independent unit within the company, using his own stories, gags, production and directing, even offering not to take a salary until the films had proved their box-office worth, but Mayer refused to give Keaton such authority.
Skelton's next film, A Southern Yankee (1948), was, though, an unofficial remake of Keaton's classic The General, while one of its highlights is the recreation of a gag from Keaton's Jail Bait in which Skelton, passing between lines of both Confederate and Union armies, wears a uniform with one side blue and the other grey - both sides stop shooting when they see their own uniform.
In Neptune's Daughter (1949) Skelton was one of the quartet of stars (with Esther Williams, Betty Garrett and Ricardo Montalban) who introduced Frank Loesser's Oscar-winning song "Baby, It's Cold Outside". Skelton's role as an inventor in The Yellow Cab Man (1950) allowed Keaton to rework gags from his shorts One Week and The Electric House and resulted in one of Skelton's funniest comedies, while Three Little Words (1950), in which Fred Astaire and Skelton played two songwriters, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, gave him a comparatively straight role as baseball-loving Ruby.
Watch the Birdie (1950) was a remake of Keaton's own first film for MGM, The Cameraman, but the studio were now investing less money in Skelton vehicles. Excuse My Dust (1951), a pleasant period piece with songs by Arthur Schwartz and Johnny Mercer, cast Skelton as a pioneer of the automobile and was Keaton's last gagman assignment at MGM, after which Skelton was part of a starry cast in the director Mervyn LeRoy's underrated remake of Roberta entitled Lovely to Look At (1951). Skelton's routine of a befuddled tenor with diction problems ("My dentist said I had wonderful teeth, great choppers - but my gums have to come out") is among the film's highlights.
Skelton's last MGM film was The Clown (1953), a remake of the sentimental warhorse The Champ, and another misguided attempt at pathos. The same year Skelton's own show started on CBS Television and was an enormous success. It ran for nearly 20 years, during which time he created characters who became familiar to American audiences, such as the country bumpkin Clem Kaddidlehopper, the boxer Cauliflower McPugg, Sheriff Deadeye, scourge of the West, Freddie the Freeloader (a tramp who never spoke) and the Mean Widdle Kid, who used the catchphrase "I dood it". Skelton described them as "characters who remind the audience of someone they know."
Though he and Edna were divorced in 1943 (she later married the director Frank Borzage), she remained his business manager. In 1945 he married the model Georgia Maureen Davis. They had two children but the younger Richard died of leukaemia just before his 10th birthday in 1958 and the grief-stricken Skelton embarked on a strenuous work schedule as therapy. In 1972 Red and Georgia divorced and the following year he married Lothian Toland, daughter of the cinematographer Gregg Toland.
Skelton made his final screen appearance in 1965 with a cameo in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, as a Neanderthal man trying to be a flying bird - it was one of the film's comedy highlights. Though wealthy, he continued to make occasional night-club and television appearances, and had a lucrative sideline as a painter of clowns. "I don't want to be called `the greatest'," 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."
In 1990, aged 80, he gave a farewell performance at Carnegie Hall, his billing describing him simply as "One of America's Clowns".