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Arte Johnson, the comic best known for the hilarious characters he created for the 1960s NBC smash hit Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, has died. He was 90.
The 5-foot-4 Johnson, a master of ad libs, double-talk and dialects who was content to be a “second banana,” died Wednesday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles of heart failure following a three-year battle with bladder and prostate cancer, his family announced.
Johnson cracked up Laugh-In audiences with his portrayal of Wolfgang, a former German storm trooper who muttered “Verry interesting” to the most cracked proposals (or, “Verry interesting … but stupid”). 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.
Outfitted in 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 suggestive mutterings, she would swat him with her oversized purse.
Johnson had a repertoire of more than 60 comic characters, including Piotr Rosmenko, an Eastern European song-and-dance man; Rabbi Shankar, an addled Indian guru; and a man in a yellow raincoat who could not help falling off his tricycle.
“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 1972 interview.
Arthur Stanton Eric Johnson was born on Jan. 20, 1929, in Benton Harbor, Michigan. 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.
“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.”
After college, Johnson 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 was disenchanted with the publishing world.
During a walk during his lunch hour at Viking, he came upon an audition across the street from Carnegie Hall. He talked his way in, charmed songwriter Jule Styne and landed a part as a 65-year-old Frenchman in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
He followed that by replacing Roddy McDowall as bespectacled Army inductee Ben in Broadway’s No Time for Sergeants, then did a “Hamlet on skates” routine with Bea Arthur in the off-Broadway hit Shoestring Revue. His knack for improv comedy also landed him nightclub gigs, and he exchanged material with Jonathan Winters.
Johnson came to Los Angeles in 1955 as a singer and appeared on such shows as It’s Always Jan, Make Room for Daddy, Sally, The Twilight Zone, The Red Skelton Hour, The Andy Griffith Show and McHale’s Navy and in the films Miracle in the Rain (1956), The Subterraneans (1960), The Third Day (1965) — as a neurotic killer — and The President’s Analyst (1967).
His versatile vocal creations led to work in scores of commercials over the years.
When his career hit a rough patch, he toiled as a salesman at the men’s clothing store Carroll & Co. in Beverly Hills. In a 2005 interview with Bill Dana for Emerson College’s American Comedy Archives, he remembered when stand-up comic Mort Sahl, whom he had known from New York, walked in.
“Mort said, ‘Ah, what are you buying?’ And I had to look at him and honestly say, ‘Mort, I ain’t buyin,’ I’m sellin.'” That was a very, very, very major hit. And it hurt, it really hurt.
“[Store owner and close friend Dick Carroll] kept telling people who came in, ‘Why is this guy working in a clothing store? He should be doing movies, television.’ And suddenly, one day, somebody called and he said to me, ‘They’re looking for you at MGM. And I went over and they offered me a role.”
Producer George Schlatter was impressed with his humorous characterizations and impersonations and asked Johnson to try out for Laugh-In, which debuted in September 1968.
“I worked off the top of my head most of the time,” he told Dana. “I did a lot of ad lib. And it wasn’t that I was writing for myself, because the writers would present a program and a setup for me, and they would give me four or five examples. Then, in my own head, I would conjure five or six different things.”
In the 1970s for NBC, Johnson headlined his own special, Verry Interesting; starred in the telefilm Call Holme, a comedy mystery that utilized his propensity for disguises and accents; and served as master of ceremonies for the quiz show Knockout.
Later, he played a magazine photographer on Aaron Spelling’s Glitter and Yakov Smirnoff’s father on NBC’s Night Court, used his vocal talents for audiobooks by Dave Barry and others and returned to Broadway to play several characters in a revival of Candide for Harold Prince.
His brother, Coslough Johnson, was a comedy writer who worked on The Monkees, Laugh-In and The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour and on several cartoons (Arte voiced characters in some of those).
In 1968, Johnson married a German woman, Gisela, and picked up a love of needlepoint from her. She survives him, as does his brother. Donations in his name can be made to Actors & Others for Animals.
In the interview with Dana, Johnson said he never had any desire to be a star.
“I was always a reactive performer. A guy does something, I will react to it,” he said. “That’s my mindset. I cannot be the No. 1. I guess I was born to be a second banana. And I had no reluctance in doing it. I loved it.”