Legendary comedic actor Arte Johnson, best known for characters he created for the 1960s NBC smash hit Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, has died at the age of 90.
He passed away in Los Angeles due to heart failure after a long battle with bladder and prostate cancer, first reported by The Hollywood Reporter.
Johnson won an Emmy for his work on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and worked in TV and film for nearly 50 years before passing away at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Johnson Was Best Known for His Wolfgang Character, a German Soldier Who Believed WWII Was Still Going on
Johnson’s career throughout the film and television industry stretched across many decades and many characters, but one character that captured everyone’s hearts and laughs was Wolfgang, a cigarette-smoking German soldier who believed that World War II was still ongoing.
Johnson most notably made the character memorable with his catch-phrase, “Very interesting …”
According to Deadline, Johnson’s character was inspired by a character in the 1942 film Desperate Journey. The character was a Nazi who was known for using the, “Very interesting…” line during an interrogation scene.
2. Johnson Also Played the Character of Tyrone F. Horneigh, a Old Man Infatuated with Fellow Character, Gladys
Tyrone F. Horneigh was full of inappropriate comments and double-entrendres that usually led to him getting hit over the head by Gladys, a spinster played by Ruth Buzzi.
Horneigh was known for wearing a trench-coat and muttering “dirty old man” throughout sketches, as he would cozy up to Gladys on park benches.
Johnson and Buzzi’s characters really peaked in the third season of the show when Horneigh was successful in his attempts to court Gladys. The two participated in an on-air wedding in a March 1970 episode which swept television ratings, according to Deadline.
3. Johnson Was a Master Comic Who Created and Played over 60 Different Characters
Johnson’s creativity and acting talent did not end with Wolfgang and Horneigh, as the legendary manic-character guru created and played over 60 characters throughout his career.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, some of those characters included Piotr Rosmenko, an Eastern European song-and-dance man; Rabbi Shankar, an addled Indian guru; and a man in a yellow raincoat who could not help falling off his tricycle.
“Humor for me consists in incongruity,” he said in 1974. “If I were doing a Hasidic rabbi, I’d have him speak with an Irish accent. … You take it out of reality and make it cartoon-esque without being denigrating. Because people today are so sensitive, it’s the only way of creating humor without offending someone.”
Johnson’s career also spanned well before and after Laugh-In, as his career began in 1954 and ended in 2005 when he played Virman Vundabar in Justice League Unlimited, per his IMDB page.
Before Laugh-In, Johnson starred in shows such as 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.
4. Johnson Won an Emmy for His Work in Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In
Laugh-In was a television staple throughout the late-1960s and really peaked in 1969, per Deadline.
The show 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.
The show also won an Emmy for Outstanding Variety Series in 1971 and the Best TV Show Golden Globe in 1969.
Johnson did eventually leave the series after four seasons, claiming that the show’s workload did not allow him to explore other avenues according to The Hollywood Reporter.
“I work best when I have a false nose, a false mustache, an odd costume, a piece of hair, a bone through my nose. Give me some odd, weird thing and that’s me,” he said in a 1972 interview.
Following his stint on Laugh-In, Johnson’s next break-out performance was in Love at First Bite when he played Count Dracula’s (George Hamilton) servant Renfield.
5. Johnson Was Born in Benton Harbor, MI & Is Survived by His Wife & Brother
Born Arthur Stanton Eric Johnson on January 20, 1929, in Benton Harbor, MI, Johnson got his start in show business in 1953 when he decided to audition in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the 1953 comedy that starred Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe.
Johnson is survived by his 51-year-old wife Gisela, and his brother Coslough Johnson. Coslough also won an Emmy for his writing on Laugh-In in 1968, according to Deadline.
Johson’s family has yet to announce plans for a ceremony, but his ashes will be taken to Hawaii for a ceremony there.
According to Deadline, instead of flowers Johnson’s family is requesting donations to be made to Actors & Others for Animals, Best Friends and/or to Cancer Research.