Over six decades, Paul Winchell was a master ventriloquist who brought dummies Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff to life on television and a resourcefull inventor who held 30 patents, including one for an early artificial heart he built in 1963, but it would be his work as a voiceover artist for animated projects--specifically as the source of Tigger's lively, lispy tones in Disney's "Winnie the Pooh" film series--that would make him, or at least his voice, eternally beloved by children everywhere.
Winchell was born in New York City on Dec. 21, 1922. He contracted polio at age six and overcame speech impediments as he learned to throw his own voice. At the age of 13, Winchell was a winner on radio's Amateur Hour for doing his imitation of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Jerry Mahoney, a smart-mouthed puppet he had invented in his early teens who began with an appearance in a 1936 radio audition for "Major Bowes Original Amateur Hour" (earning first prize), was inspired by ventriloquist Bergen's McCarthy--Bergen was his childhood hero, and Winchell said one of the greatest thrills of his life was a joint appearance with Bergen on the game show "Masquerade Party."
Winchell made his television debut in 1947 with a smart-mouthed puppet he had invented in his early teens, and within a year was host of "The Bigelow Show. " He was also host of a number of children's shows, including "The Paul Winchell-Jerry Mahoney Show" and "Circus Time." In 1950, Winchell created Knucklehead Smiff and introduced him on "The Spiedel Show," which later became "What's My Name?" Winchell's dummies came to reside at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and in 1986, Winchell won a nearly $18 million verdict against Metromedia Inc., which he claimed destroyed the only surviving tapes of his "Winchell Mahoney Time" children's show from the mid-1960s after a dispute over ownership rights.
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."
He then began an association with Walt Disney and earned the role for which he would become most associated: the voice of the lovable tiger in Disney's animated versions of A.A. Milne's "Winnie the Pooh," with his trademark "T-I-double grrrr-R." Winchell first voiced Tigger in 1968 for Disney's "Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day," which won an Academy Award for best animated short film, and continued to do so through 1999's "Winnie the Pooh: Seasons of Giving." Winchell said he always tried to look for characteristics and idiosyncrasies in the voices he created. For Tigger, he created a slight lisp and a laugh. He credited his wife, who is British, for giving him the inspiration for Tigger's signature phrase: "TTFN. TA-TA for now." In 1974, he earned a Grammy for best children's recording with "The Most Wonderful Things About Tiggers" from the feature "Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too." On the award-winning soundtrack, Winchell gave a throaty, bouncy rendition to the memorable lyric: "The wonderful thing about tiggers, is tiggers are wonderful things! Their tops are made out of rubber, their bottoms are made out of springs!" He was also nominated for an Annie award for the 1998 animated feature-length "Pooh's Grand Adventure: The Search for Christopher Robin." Voice artist Jim Cummings would later succeed Winchell as the voice of Tigger.
Winchell voiced memorable characters in numerous animated features over the years for Disney and Hanna Barbera. He was Gargamel in "The Smurfs," the voice of the Scrubbing Bubble in the TV commercials, Dick Dastardly of "Wacky Races," Fleegle on "The Banana Splits Adventure Hour" and Boomer in "The Fox and the Hound."
In 1986 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. Winchell was heartbroken when all record of some of his best, most creative material was wiped clean.
A self-taught renaissance man, Winchell attended Columbia University and also studied and practiced acupuncture and hypnosis and became a prolific inventor. He donated his early artificial heart to the University of Utah for research. Dr. Robert Jarvik and other researchers at the university went on to build an artificial heart, dubbed the Jarvik-7, which was implanted into patients after 1982. Among Winchell's other patents: a disposable razor, a flameless cigarette lighter and an invisible garter belt.