Paul Winchell, who delighted generations of children through his work as a ventriloquist and as the voice of numerous animated characters, most memorably that of Tigger, the vivacious, spring-tailed cohort of Winnie the Pooh, died June 24 at his home in Moorpark, California. Winchell, who passed away in his sleep, was 82 years old.
Winchell launched his show business career as a teenager, when he began publicly performing the ventriloquism that he pursued as a way to overcome a childhood stutter. He demonstrated a similarly willful commitment to self-improvement when he rebounded from the effects of polio, which he contracted at age six, through persistent weight training to strengthen his atrophied legs.
Winchell, who was born Paul Wilchen on December 21, 1922, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, grew up near Coney Island, where the nearby boardwalk, with its sideshow barkers and carnival workers, provided an early exposure to show business. In his biography, Winch, Winchell describes himself as a shy child with a speech impediment who was frequently beaten by his overbearing mother.
He found sanctuary from his often grim home life by listening to the radio, especially the comedy of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, whom Winchell began to emulate after buying a book on ventriloquism at age 12. When he began trying out his act on classmates, using a dummy he constructed as a school art project, the socially awkward youth discovered that his talent made him popular for the first time. As he wrote on his website, “Suddenly I had found my place in the sun.”
He made his professional debut in 1936 when he won first prize on The Major Bowes Original Amateur Hour, a popular radio talent show. His performance led to years of live bookings, radio appearances and eventually television with his wisecracking wooden companion, Jerry Mahoney. He began his television career on the 1940s variety series The Bigelow Show, as the comic sidekick to mind reader Joseph Dunninger. In 1950 he was given his own series, The Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney Show, a melding of comedy, songs, quizzes and even dramatic segments, with such celebrity guests as actor Peter Lorre and first daughter Margaret Truman. Jerry Mahoney’s girlfriend was played by a young Carol Burnett.
Following the show’s four-year run, Winchell, whose other famous dummy was the sweet but dim-witted Knucklehead Smiff, continued to make appearances on other variety programs, and eventually launched another of his own, Winchell-Mahoney Time, which was aimed at children. In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court awarded $17.8 million to Winchell, who had sued Metromedia Inc. for having destroyed all existing videotapes of his 1960s children's shows. Both Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff are now at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
In the early 1960s Winchell began lending his protean voice talents to such animated series as The Jetsons and Wacky Races, and he went on to perform in dozens of animated productions, from The Flintstones and Yogi Bear to Heathcliff and The Smurfs. In 1968, he was hired by Disney to provide the voice for Tigger in Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day. Six years later, he shared a Grammy Award for Best Recording for Children for the song “The Most Wonderful Things About Tiggers” from the film Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too! Winchell continued to give voice to Tigger for different Disney projects until 1999.
In addition to his ventriloquism and voice-over work, Winchell also worked as an actor on such TV series as The Lucy Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, Perry Mason, The Brady Bunch and Nanny and the Professor.
Although best known for his achievements as an entertainer, Winchell was also a prolific inventor and social activist. In his mid-thirties, he began pre-medical studies at Columbia University and eventually became proficient as an acupuncturist and medical hypnotist. Projects for the American Red Cross and the Leukemia Society resulted in medical patents. In 1963, Winchell developed an artificial heart that served as a prototype for the mechanical heart successfully transplanted by Robert K. Jarvik nearly 20 years later.
Winchell eventually held more than 30 patents for devices ranging from a fountain pen with a retractable tip to a flameless cigarette lighter to an invisible garter belt. In the early 1980s he also addressed social concerns when he, along with actors Ed Asner and Richard Dreyfuss, testified before Congress about the plight of starving Africans and suggested raising tilapia, a fish that reproduces rapidly, to feed the people.
Winchell, whose first two marriages ended in divorce, is survived by his third wife, Jean Freeman, to whom he was married for 31 years; two children from his first marriage; a daughter from his second marriage—voice-over artist April Winchell; and two sons from his third marriage.