Arte Johnson, who won an Emmy for his memorable work on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and worked in TV and film for nearly half a century, died early Wednesday at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, his family said announced. He was 90 and had battled bladder and prostate cancer for the past three years.
Johnson earned three consecutive Emmy noms for Laugh-In from 1969-71, winning the first year. He was part of the politically tinged NBC sketch series’ main cast from its launch in January 1968 until 1971, playing myriad characters in the show that launched the careers of such stars as Lily Tomlin, Goldie Hawn, Eileen Brennan, Henry Gibson, Jo Anne Worley and many others.
Among his most popular characters was Wolfgang, a cigarette-smoking German soldier who believed that World War II was still ongoing, as he scouted the show while hidden behind bushes. He would then invariably comment on the preceding sketch with the drawn-out catchphrase “Very interesting …,” which Johnson claimed was inspired by a Nazi character who spoke the line during an interrogation scene in the 1942 film Desperate Journey.
Often toward the show’s close, Johnson’s Nazi would offer words of affection to Lucy and Gary (Lucille Ball and her second husband, EP Gary Morton). Their show Here’s Lucy (aka The Lucy Show) on CBS aired on CBS opposite Laugh-In on Monday nights. Johnson reprised the role while voicing the Nazi-inspired character Virman Vundabar on an episode of Justice League Unlimited.
Perhaps his most famous recurring Laugh-In sketch was as Tyrone F. Horneigh, the trenchcoated, muttering “dirty old man” who would cozy up to Ruth Buzzi’s prim spinster character on a park bench. After attempting to strike up a conversation with some double-entendres, his character inevitably would take multiple purse blows to the noggin.
During the show’s third season, Tyrone successfully courted Gladys, which led to an on-air wedding in a March 1970 episode during the spring ratings sweep. Tiny Tim played best man, with Carol Channing as the bridesmaid and Gibson officiating.
Laugh-In was a near-instant smash. After debuting as a midseason replacement, it topped all of primetime during its first two full seasons — posting a 31.8 rating in 1968-69 and a 26.3 the following season. It won the Emmy for Outstanding Variety Series in 1971 and the Best TV Show Golden Globe in 1969.
But Johnson’s career continued long after Laugh-In wrapped and began long before it. Born Arthur Stanton Eric Johnson on January 20, 1929 in Benton Harbor, MI, his first job in show business came when he impulsively stepped into an audition line and was cast in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the 1953 comedy that starred Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe. Johnson later appeared in Ben Bagley’s The Shoestring Revue, which opened off-Broadway on February 28, 1955, at the President Theater in New York.
Johnson appeared on three episodes of 1955–56 CBS sitcom It’s Always Jan, starring Janis Paige and Merry Anders, and in 1958, he joined the cast of the short-lived NBC sitcom Sally, starring Joan Caulfield. In 1960, he played Ariel Lavalerra in the film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s novel The Subterraneans. He also appeared in episodes of Jackie Cooper’s 1960-61 CBS military sitcom/drama series, Hennesey. The following year, he appeared as Mr. Bates in the episode “A Secret Life” on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
The actor’s other pre-Laugh-In credits include guest shots on such series as Dr. Kildare, The Andy Griffith Show, McHale’s Navy, The Jack Benny Program, Bewitched, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Donna Reed Show and The Phyllis Diller Show. He also appeared in the 1961 Twilight Zone episode “The Whole Truth,” playing an underpaid car salesman who punches dishonest used car lot owner Jack Carson, and later appeared in Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling’s 1970s anthology series Night Gallery as a ruthless disk jockey who is forced to confront his past transgressions.
His ’70s TV credits also include Love, American Style; The Partridge Family, The Rookies, Get Christie Love!, Fantasy Island, Captain Kangaroo and his first big voice role as Rhubarb in The Houndcats, a Saturday morning cartoon series that aired in 1972. His next starring voice role came in 19t7, when he and Buzzi reprised their Laugh-In characters of Tyrone and Gladys in the toon series Baggy Pants and the Nitwits. This time, Johnson’s Tyrone was a helpful, muttering “superhero.”
Johnson scored his biggest movie role in the 1979 vampire sendup Love at First Bite, playing Renfield, the bug-eating sidekick to star George Hamilton’s Count Dracula — who has relocated to New York City to find a wife. Both won acting awards at the 1980 Science Fiction Film Awards in Los Angeles (right).
Although best known for his prolific TV work, Johnson also appeared in such features as The Third Day (1965), The President’s Analyst (1967), Cannonball Run II (1984) and as Harry Houdini in A Night at the Magic Castle (1988).
Johnson continued to work as an actor through the 1990s, focusing mostly on voice-over work later in his career. He retired from acting in 2006.
He is survived by his wife of 51 years, Gisela, and his brother Coslough Johnson, who won an Emmy in 1968 as part of the Laugh-In writing team and would go one to score more Emmy noms as a writer for the popular Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour. Johnson family said there are no plans for services at this time but that the actor’s ashes will be taken to Hawaii for a ceremony there. In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting donations be made to Actors & Others for Animals, Best Friends and/or to Cancer Research.