Paul Winchell - a man of many talents, but best known first for his talents as a ventriloquist, and later for his work as a voiceover artist in cartoons including "Winnie the Pooh" - has died at the age of 82.
TV producer Burt Du Brow, a close friend of the family, told the Los Angeles Times that Winchell died Friday morning in his sleep at his home in Moorpark, California.
Winchell first rose to fame as master ventriloquist, whose dummies Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff were a favorite of 1950s television.
He was also an inventor who held 30 patents, including one for an artificial heart, which he built in 1963.
To a younger generation, he is better known for his work as the lispy voice of Tigger in animated versions of A.A. Milne's "Winnie the Pooh" - punctuating the amiable tiger's voice 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."
"I first met Walt Disney 25 or 30 years ago," Winchell recalled in a 1988 interview with The Associated Press. "He said, 'We're both in the same business. I use cartoons and you use dummies and we both entertain children.' That was long before I started working here. Walt gave me a VIP tour of the studio. I remember people doing voices. I said, 'Gee, that must be fun.' And here I am."
Winchell voiced memorable characters in numerous animated features over the years for Disney and Hanna Barbera. He was Gargamel in "The Smurfs," and Boomer in "The Fox and the Hound."
Winchell's resume reads like a history of television, appearing or doing voiceovers on top shows from the 1950s right on through the 1990s. According to IMDB.com, he was on "Toast of the Town" (the predecessor to the "Ed Sullivan Show"), "Your Show of Shows," "What's My Line?", "The Beverly Hillbillies," "The Jetsons," "77 Sunset Strip," "Perry Mason," "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "The Lucy Show," "The Dean Martin Show," "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In," "The Virginian," "The Perils of Penelope Pitstop," "Love, American Style," "Dr. Seuss on the Loose," "Fred Flintstone and Friends," "Yogi's Treasure Hunt," "Spider-Man," "The Brady Bunch," "McMillan and Wife," "Garfield and Friends," "Heathcliff," and many more.
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.
At the age of 13, Winchell was a winner on radio's "Amateur Hour" for doing his imitation of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and Bergen's famed wooden stage partner, Charlie 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?"
Despite his success in television, Winchell felt the medium did not do justice to his beloved craft.
"Ventriloquism today is in a slump," he told the AP. "I think television defeats ventriloquism. Children are so used to seeing puppets that when they see a real ventriloquist they don't understand it. On television, everyone talks and they don't care about the mechanics."
Winchell's dummies are now at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
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.
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.
Winchell is survived by his wife of 31 years, the former Jean Freeman; five children and three grandchildren.