Arte Johnson Dies: Master of Manic Characters on ‘Laugh-In,’ was 90

Arte Johnson, who spent over 50 years working on TV and cinema and received an Emmy for his legendary work on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-on, passed away early on Wednesday at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, according to his family. He was 90 years old and had spent the previous three years battling bladder and prostate cancer.

Following a three-year struggle with bladder and prostate cancer, the 5-foot-4 Johnson, a master of ad libs, double-talk, and accents who was content to be a “second banana,” passed away on Wednesday from heart failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre in Los Angeles, according to his family.

With his portrayal of Wolfgang, a former German stormtrooper who mumbled “Very interesting” to the most ridiculous suggestions (or, “Very interesting… but stupid”), Johnson amused Laugh-In audiences. He claimed that while seeing Errol Flynn and Ronald Reagan fight the Nazis in the 1942 film Desperate Journey, he received the inspiration for the character.

Johnson won the first year of three consecutive Emmy nominations for Laugh-In from 1969 to 1971. He played a variety of parts in the programme that launched the careers of stars like Lily Tomlin, Goldie Hawn, Eileen Brennan, Henry Gibson, Jo Anne Worley, and many others from its premiere in January 1968 until 1971.

Johnson was funny as Tyrone F. Horneigh, a filthy old man who approached the spinster Gladys (Ruth Buzzi) on a park bench while sporting a walking stick, a terrible suit, frizzy hair, and a strange top hat. He would murmur something provocative, and she would slap him with her big handbag.

Johnson had a library of more than 60 comedic characters, such as Rabbi Shankar, an insane Indian guru, Piotr Rosmenko, an Eastern European song-and-dance performer, and a man in a yellow raincoat who could not help falling off his tricycle.

Johnson made three guest appearances on the 1955–1956 CBS sitcom It’s Always Jan, which starred Janis Paige and Merry Anders. In 1958, Johnson joined the cast of the NBC sitcom Sally, which starred Joan Caulfield, although the show only lasted two seasons. He portrayed Ariel Lavalerra in the 1960 motion picture version of Jack Kerouac’s book The Subterraneans. He also made appearances in episodes of Jackie Cooper’s CBS military drama series Hennesey from 1960–1961. He made a guest appearance as Mr. Bates in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode “A Secret Life” the following year.

In addition to his work on Laugh-In, the actor has appeared as a guest on a number of other television shows, including Dr. Kildare, The Andy Griffith Show, McHale’s Navy, The Jack Benny Programme, Bewitched, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Donna Reed Show, and The Phyllis Diller Show. As an underpaid car salesman who punches dishonest used car lot owner Jack Carson in the 1961 Twilight Zone episode “The Whole Truth,” he also made an appearance. He later made an appearance in the 1970s anthology series Night Gallery, created by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, as a ruthless disc jockey who is forced to face his past wrongdoings.

In the 1979 vampire spoof Love at First Bite, Johnson played Renfield, the bug-eating sidekick of actor George Hamilton’s Count Dracula, who had moved to New York City in search of a wife. At the 1980 Science Fiction Film Awards in Los Angeles (right), both individuals received acting honours.

He previously told the Los Angeles Times, “I’m of the subway, streetcar, bus school of acting.” “Chicago has all these neighbourhoods for different nationalities. You could hear the accents while you were travelling through on a bus. The double talk originates from the musicality of the languages, which I picked up.

After graduating from college, Johnson moved to New York, where he worked as a writer for a calendar company before enlisting in the Army. He found work in publicity at Viking Press when he returned to New York, working with John Steinbeck to launch the 1952 book East of Eden, but he soon grew bored with the publishing industry.

Gisela, a German woman Johnson married in 1968, imparted her love of needlepoint to Johnson. She and his brother both live on after him. You can give to Actors & Others for Animals in his honour.

Johnson claimed during the interview with Dana that he had no desire to be a celebrity.

“I was always a performer who was reactive. I’ll respond if a guy does something, he said. That’s how I think. I cannot be number one. I suppose being a second banana was in my nature. And I didn’t hesitate to do it. I was smitten.

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