Paul Winchell, 82; the Voice of Tigger Gained Fame as Ventriloquist
Paul Winchell, the voice of Tigger in “Winnie the Pooh” features for more than three decades and a versatile ventriloquist who became a fixture in early children’s television along with his dummies Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff, has died. He was 82.
Winchell died early Friday in his sleep at his home in Moorpark, Burt Du Brow, a television producer and close family friend, said Saturday.
Although he was a legendary ventriloquist and built a career attracting legions of followers of that dwindling art, Winchell’s most durable legacy may be his rich voice as Tigger and other animated characters on television and in motion pictures.
He became the lovable Tigger in 1968 for Disney’s “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day,” which earned an Academy Award for best animated short film. Winchell continued to voice A.A. Milne’s imaginative little tiger on television and the big screen through “Winnie the Pooh: Seasons of Giving” in 1999. In recent years, Jim Cummings has voiced Tigger as well as Pooh.
Winchell earned a Grammy in 1974 for the best children’s recording with “The Most Wonderful Things About Tiggers” from the feature “Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too.” In addition, he was nominated for an Annie award for the 1998 animated feature-length “Pooh’s Grand Adventure: The Search for Christopher Robin.”
It was Winchell, crediting his British-born wife, who came up with Tigger’s signature phrase “TTFN,” or “Ta-ta for now.”
The entertainer also has been heard as Gargamel in “The Smurfs,” as Dick Dastardly in Hanna Barbera cartoons, including “Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines,” and as Boomer in Disney’s “The Fox and the Hound,” among many others.
During a career spanning more than six decades, Winchell saw television evolve from his best asset to something of a nemesis for ventriloquists.
“Television and its use of computers can make everything talk, so there’s no need for the art of ventriloquism anymore,” he told The Times in 1998. “I don’t think young kids today would even understand it.”
Yet it was television that dramatically showcased Winchell’s art.
By the time he published his book “Ventriloquism for Fun and Profit” in 1954, he had built a base of ready buyers.
Winchell debuted on NBC in 1947 with “The Paul Winchell-Jerry Mahoney Show,” featuring a smart-mouthed puppet he had invented in his early teens. The budding ventriloquist had introduced Jerry in 1936 on radio’s “Major Bowes Original Amateur Hour,” earning first prize.
He created the dimwitted Knucklehead Smiff in 1950 and introduced him on “The Spiedel Show,” which was quickly renamed “What’s My Name?” In those early days of television, Winchell also hosted “The Bigelow Show” and a program called “Circus Time.”
His string of children’s shows through the 1950s and 1960s welcomed top guest entertainers, including Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball and Angela Lansbury.
Winchell, who credited television variety shows with popularizing ventriloquism in the mid-20th century, received broad exposure on Ed Sullivan’s show beginning in 1949. That earned him invitations to subsequent variety programs such as “The Lucy Show,” “The Dean Martin Show” and “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.”
Named television’s most versatile performer by Look magazine in 1952 and 1953, Winchell was also in demand as a panelist on “What’s My Line?” and for guest roles on such popular series as “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Perry Mason” and “Love, American Style.”
As variety shows began losing their luster in the 1960s, the canny Winchell segued into a new career voicing animated characters, beginning with various roles for the 1962 futuristic television series “The Jetsons.”
Although Winchell’s recorded voice is preserved in countless animated programs and other shows, little remains of his hours of on-air performances as a ventriloquist.
That void was highlighted in 1986 when he won a $17.8-million jury verdict in his lawsuit against Metromedia Inc. over its destruction of the only remaining tapes of his “Winchell Mahoney Time” children’s television series. Metromedia, which produced the show from 1964 to 1968, erased the 288 tapes in a dispute with Winchell over the syndication rights.
“The thing that was perhaps most painful to me was that in my best days, back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, it was all live,” Winchell told The Times after the verdict. “All the work I had done in the past, there was no record of it.
“Then finally I had the opportunity to do this taped thing [from 1964 to 1968], and I felt that at last, I’ll have some remaining record of my work that future people could see, especially children. Suddenly I didn’t have it anymore. It was gone forever.”
Winchell donated the original versions of his best-known sidekicks, Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff, to the Smithsonian Institution.
Born Paul Wilchen in New York City on Dec. 21, 1922, he was a shy youth who stuttered. Fascinated with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy pal Charlie McCarthy, Winchell learned to throw his own voice and gradually overcame his speech impediment.
“Ventriloquism is closely related to magic,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1999. “It’s all about misdirection. You practice speaking from your diaphragm and low in your throat. You substitute letters for ‘B’ and ‘P’ that allow you to speak without moving your lips.”
Something of a renaissance man, Winchell was also an inventor who held 30 patents, including one for an early artificial heart he built in 1963 and then donated to the University of Utah for research. Dr. Robert Jarvik and other University of Utah researchers later became well-known for the Jarvik-7, which was implanted into patients after 1982.
Among Winchell’s other inventions were an early disposable razor, a flameless cigarette lighter, an invisible garter belt and an indicator to show when frozen food had gone bad after a power outage.
He attended Columbia University, then studied and practiced acupuncture and hypnosis. To help himself through bouts of severe depression, he studied and wrote widely on theology.
Winchell was featured in the book “Dummy Days: America’s Favorite Ventriloquists From Radio and Early TV” by director Kelly Asbury, and published an autobiography, “Winch.”
He is survived by his wife of 31 years, the former Jean Freeman; five children; and three grandchildren.
Funeral services will be private. A public memorial observation is pending.