Arte Johnson, the comic best known for the hilarious characters he created for the 1960s NBC smash hit Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, died Wednesday (7/3/2019) at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He succumbed to heart failure following a three-year battle with bladder and prostate cancer, his family announced. He was 90.
Arthur Stanton Eric Johnson was born Jan. 20, 1929, in Benton Harbor, Mich. His father was a lawyer, and Johnson spent most of his young years in Chicago. He entered Austin High School at age 12 and the University of Illinois at 16, where he graduated with a major in radio journalism.
After college, he migrated to New York, where he wrote for a calendar company, and then served a stint in the Army. Back in New York, he landed a publicity job at Viking Press (he worked with John Steinbeck getting out the 1952 novel East of Eden) but decided to leave the publishing world.
“I’m of the subway, streetcar, bus school of acting,” he once told the Los Angeles Times. “In Chicago, there were all these areas for various nationalities. When you passed through on a bus, you’d hear the accents. I picked up the musicality of the languages … that’s where the double-talk stems from.”
Johnson was popular with Laugh-In audiences with his portrayal of Wolfgang, a former German stormtrooper who muttered “Verrry interesting.” He said he got the idea for the character while watching Errol Flynn and Ronald Reagan battle the Nazis in the 1942 movie Desperate Journey. Another favorite character on the show was when he was dressed as a comic combination of Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein — walking stick, bad suit, frizzy hair, odd top hat. Johnson also was delightful as Tyrone F. Horneigh, a dirty old man who propositioned the spinster Gladys (Ruth Buzzi) on a park bench. After his flirtations, she would swat him with her purse.
Johnson had a repertoire of more than 60 comic characters, including a man in a yellow raincoat who could not help falling off his tricycle. Remember that one?
“Humor for me consists in incongruity,” he said in 1974. “If I were doing a Hasidic rabbi, I’d have him speak with an Irish accent. … You take it out of reality and make it cartoon-esque without being denigrating. Because people today are so sensitive, it’s the only way of creating humor without offending someone.”
Johnson won an Emmy in 1969 for his work on Laugh-In but left the show after four seasons, saying its demanding workload didn’t leave him time to do much else.
In 1979, he portrayed Count Dracula’s (George Hamilton) sniveling manservant Renfield in Love at First Bite.
“I work best when I have a false nose, a false mustache, an odd costume, a piece of hair, a bone through my nose. Give me some odd, weird thing and that’s me,” he said in a July 1972 interview.
In 1968, Johnson married a German woman, Gisela, and picked up a love of needlepoint from her. She survives him, as does his brother, Coslogh.
Ref. thehollywoodreporter.com, msn.com/entertainment,
Photo courtesy of Bing via kpbs.org