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TV Ventriloquist, Cartoon Voice And Inventor Paul Winchell Dies

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 27, 2005

Paul Winchell, 82, an early television ventriloquist who provided goofy voice-overs for such animated characters as Winnie the Pooh's friend Tigger and who invented a version of the artificial heart, died June 24 at his home in Moorpark, Calif. No cause of death was reported.

As a young man, Mr. Winchell was shy and stuttered, and he used ventriloquism as a form of therapy. Emulating his routine on the smart-alecky radio banter between Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy, the teenage Mr. Winchell soon found a welcoming Depression-era audience. He rose from the vaudeville circuit to radio and television, becoming a fixture of children's television.

Most famously, he and his sassy dummy, Jerry Mahoney, had "The Paul Winchell-Jerry Mahoney Show" on NBC from 1950 to 1954. The program was ambitious, featuring comedy, music, quizzes and dramatic segments to showcase Mr. Winchell's range. It also was one of Carol Burnett's early credits; she played Mahoney's girlfriend.

Mr. Winchell, whose other dummy was dimwitted sidekick Knucklehead Smiff, appeared on other variety and quiz programs and was part of the weekend morning shows for children.

As animated fare became more popular, he adapted and worked for Hanna-Barbera, Disney and other major producers of cartoons.

He shared a Grammy Award for Best Recording for Children for "Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too!" (1974). At the suggestion of his third wife, who is British, he said he improvised Tigger's catchphrase "Ta-ta for now," or "TTFN."

"It wasn't until I was 35 that it dawned on me that I'd missed my education," Mr. Winchell once said. In the mid-1950s, he studied pre-med at Columbia University and later became an acupuncturist and a medical hypnotist. He undertook projects for the American Red Cross and the Leukemia Society, work that led to medical patents.

In 1963, he patented an artificial heart that he said was a collaboration with Henry J. Heimlich, inventor of the maneuver for choking victims. Mr. Winchell's device was considered the prototype for the one designed by Robert K. Jarvik that was successfully implanted in a human in 1982.

Heimlich later said: "I saw the heart, I saw the patent and I saw the letters. The basic principle used in Winchell's heart and Jarvik's heart is exactly the same."

Paul Wilchen was born Dec. 21, 1922, in Manhattan's Lower East Side. He grew up in a cold-water apartment near Coney Island, where he was exposed early to sideshow barkers and carnival workers.

He contracted polio when he was 6, and the disease caused his legs to atrophy. Only by relentless weight training, he said, was he able to overcome the effects of polio.

He said his mother was intolerant of his disease and beat him frequently. He found refuge in Bergen's radio comedy. At 12, he wanted to buy a book on ventriloquism, but he said his mother refused him the dime. His older sister's boyfriend gave him the money, however, and soon Mr. Winchell was practicing -- and mastering -- his technique.

While attending a grade school in New York, he persuaded a teacher to let him build a dummy as his art project.

"I didn't tell anyone that I'd learned ventriloquism during the last few months," he wrote on his Web site. "I simply picked up the head and began to make it talk. My classmates were astounded and watched in awe as I began to imitate Charlie McCarthy's voice. . . . I'd never been particularly popular in school, but suddenly I had found my place in the sun."

He added: "I recall vividly twin girls who decided to become my bodyguards and acted as though I was their property; wherever I went, they followed to protect me."

In 1936, his school principal helped him get on the "Major Bowes Original Amateur Hour." On the radio talent show, he was introduced as "a 15-year-old boy from Cleveland named Paul Winchell" -- deliberate errors made by his sister's boyfriend intended to make the ventriloquist sound more appealing to a mass audience.

After winning, Mr. Winchell spent a decade playing revues, then began making TV appearances.

Providing comic relief, he co-starred with mind reader Joseph Dunninger on "The Bigelow Show," a network variety program of the late 1940s.

Mr. Winchell followed with "The Paul Winchell-Jerry Mahoney Show." Besides telling punning jokes, he sang duets and trios with his dummies. He later ended the quiz format and added a dramatic segment that some critics found jarring. Among the guest stars were the actors Cedric Hardwicke and Peter Lorre, as well as first daughter Margaret Truman, who played a blind woman.

In the 1960s, Mr. Winchell received dozens of patents, including one for a fountain pen with a retractable tip. He later owned a shirt factory, ran a fish farm and testified before Congress on the plight of starving Africans. He proposed using tilapia, which reproduces rapidly, to feed the hungry masses.

He wrote "Ventriloquism for Fun and Profit" (1954) and, with Keith E. Kenyon, "Acupuncture Without Needles" (1974).

His marriages to Dottie Morse and Nina Russel ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife, Jean Freeman; two children from his first marriage; a daughter from his second marriage, April Winchell, who does voice-over work; and two sons from his third marriage.

In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court awarded Mr. Winchell $17.8 million in his lawsuit against Metromedia Inc. for having destroyed all videotapes of his 1960s children's shows. About that time, he told one reporter, referring to Jerry and Knucklehead: "The boys are here with me enjoying retirement. Knucklehead has even taken up collecting -- he's collecting dust."

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