Paul Winchell, R.I.P.

An amazing man died yesterday at the age of 82. Paul Winchell was a pioneer of early television, appearing on hundreds of shows with his wooden-headed friends, Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff. He was a great ventriloquist — maybe the best ever — but he was also a great all-around entertainer and inventor.

Paul was born Paul Wilchin, and an early hero in his life was radio ventriloquist Edgar Bergen. (Years later, a whole generation of voice-throwers would cite Paul Winchell as their early hero.) Paul got his start on the popular radio program, Major Bowes' Original Amateur Hour and he later toured with stage presentations featuring talent discovered for that show. He debuted on television in 1948, at a time when few American homes even had sets, and was a mainstay of network programming for years with several different shows of his own and frequent guest appearances on others. Adults and kids alike loved the irreverent Jerry Mahoney who flirted with ladies and sassed the man who operated his head. They also loved the shy, silly Knucklehead, as well as other characters that Winchell devised. Paul was an extremely clever man and his shows were marked with inventive uses of the new medium.

Beginning in the mid-fifties, Paul turned that inventiveness into non-entertainment directions, especially medicine. His most famous achievement was in the invention of an artificial heart. Others advanced Paul's basic design to the point of making it practical but all acknowledged that the breaktrough, the underlying design, was the work of Paul Winchell. He invented numerous other things as well, including battery-heated gloves and a flameless cigarette lighter, and was as proud of his many patents as he was of all his awards as a performer.

During the sixties, Winch — as many of his friends called him — cut back on his ventriloquism and focused on his inventing. Most of his performing was limited to cartoon voice work — a field in which he quickly became one of the top practitioners. He was Dick Dastardly on Wacky Races and Dastardly and Muttley, Gargamel on The Smurfs, Fleagle on The Banana Splits, and many more…but his most enduring characterization would surely be Tigger in the Disney cartoons of Winnie the Pooh. Paul played Tigger for various projects until a few years ago when a rasp in his voice finally (and controversially in some circles) caused Disney to replace him. He also did occasional on-camera acting jobs, many of them sans dummies, and was very good in them.

I was privileged to know Paul and to work with him on several occasions. He was a brilliant man who made no secret that he was also a troubled man, uncertain of his own accomplishments and torn between performing and doing something "more serious." At times, he seemed genuinely stunned that he had been a personal hero to so many of us.

He had an amazing thirst for what some would call "dirty jokes." One of my oddest memories is of sitting with a group of friends in the living room of a small condo he had in Encino. Completely impromptu, Paul picked up a Jerry Mahoney dummy and launched into what had to have been the filthiest and funniest routine ever performed by a beloved children's entertainer. I enjoyed the performance but couldn't help but "flash back" to being five years old and watching Paul and Jerry hosting Super Circus on ABC. It was one of those moments when you're acutely aware of how far you've come since childhood.

Last year, Paul published a dark, candid autobiography called Winch, detailing some of the demons that had plagued him over the years. The book troubled many of Paul's friends, and some of his fans regretted reading it. Here's the review I posted at the time. As noted, it's not one of those "here's a list of my successes" memoirs. It was more like, "Here's how I went crazy." The last few times we spoke, I got the feeling that he was more at peace with himself than he'd been in decades, and I hope that was not just wishful thinking on my part.

I do not believe word of Paul's death has hit the wire services yet, but it's been floating around the Internet since last night. Sadly, I was finally able to confirm it via a friend of the family so I decided to go ahead and post this here. I'm sure there will be news stories soon and tributes. In the meantime, you can learn more about this extraordinary man — and even hear his theme song — over at his website. Even that exhaustive collection of articles and clippings will only give you some inkling of the brilliance of Winch.