Paul Winchell, an entertainer for more than six decades who rose to fame as a ventriloquist before becom-ing the voice of Winnie the Pooh’s friend Tigger in Disney animated films and TV shows, died in his sleep at his Moorpark, Calif., home Friday. He was 82.
Winchell – also an inventor with 30 patents including one for an early artificial heart he built in 1963 – was a master ventriloquist who brought to life two of his other inventions: dummies Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff during the 1950s and ’60s on kids TV. The dummies (he created Mahoney when he was a teen) are now at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
The New York City native, who contracted polio when he was 6 but overcame both the disease and a speech impediment, was 13 when he appeared on radio’s “Amateur Hour,” winning the competition with his imitation of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and dummy Charlie McCarthy. Later. Bergen and Winchell appeared together on gameshow “Masquerade Party.”
Winchell made his TV debut in 1947 with the smart-mouthed puppet he created in his early teens, and within a year was host of “The Bigelow Show.” He also received exposure on Ed Sullivan’s show beginning in 1949 and appeared on other variety shows.
He became host of a number of children’s shows, including “Circus Time” and particularly “The Paul Winchell-Jerry Mahoney Show” (which started out as “The Speidel Show” and was renamed “What’s My Name?,” a quiz component of the variety show).
Because TV was so new at the time, there were glitches, he recalled. For example, he heard complaints that the sound would drift when the dummies would talk. When he asked about this, the boom mic operator admitted the microphone would hover over the dummy when it “talked.”
In another instance, Winchell recalled, he passed out on live TV when, during a jungle cannibal skit, he was placed in a big cauldron: Because the lights had to be so hot and bright in the early days of TV, the production workers had thought they were doing him a favor by filling the cauldron with ice water. The heat-to-chill factor knocked him out, and the “cannibals” had to ad lib until he revived.
Winchell published “Ventriloquism for Fun and Profit” in 1954. His numerous kids shows welcomed top guest stars including Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball and Angela Lansbury.
After several years on primetime, the show moved in the early ‘60s to weekend daytime. Look magazine named him TV’s most versatile per-former in 1952 and 1953. He also appeared on quizzers including “What’s My Line?”
He in turn guested on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Perry Mason,” “Love, American Style,” “The Dean Martin Show” and “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.”
As variety and live TV shows waned and technology advanced, the organic charm of ventriloquism lapsed, so Winchell turned increasingly to voiceover work.
In that realm, he became known for his work as the voice of the lovable bouncing tiger in Disney’s animated versions of A.A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh.” He first voiced Tigger in 1968 for Disney’s “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day,” which won an Academy Award for animated short film, and continued to do so through 1999’s “Winnie the Pooh: Seasons of Giving.”
Winchell voiced numerous characters over the years for Disney and Hanna-Barbera, including Gargamel in “The Smurfs” and Boomer in “The Fox and the Hound.” He also voiced the title character in NBC’s 1980s series “Spider-Man.”
In 1974, he earned a Grammy for children’s recording with “The Most Wonderful Things About Tiggers” from the feature “Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too!”
He attended Columbia U., studied and practiced acupuncture and hypno-sis and was a prolific inventor even as he continued his showbiz career. He donated his early artificial heart to the U. of Utah for research. Among Winchell’s other patents are ones for a disposable razor, a flameless cigarette lighter and an invisible garter belt.
He is survived by his wife of 31 years, the former Jean Freeman; five children; and three grandchildren.
From staff and wire reports