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Film

2005)

Bill GIbron

Winchell is best known as the voice of that bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy, ball of Fun! Fun! Fun! Fun! Fun! called Tigger.

PopMatters Film and TV Columns Editor

Most men would be happy just living one life. Paul Winchell lived three, and succeeded magnificently in each one. To many, he will forever be the voice of Tigger, from A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh stories. Yet many fans both young and old might be amazed at his early career as one of the world's premier ventriloquists.

And here's another surprise: Winchell, who died on 25 June at age 82, also an accomplished inventor, an astute theologian, and a doctor of acupuncture. Described by friends as a renaissance man, Winchell actively sought out a range of creative avenues, patenting of over 30 ideas, as well as bringing to life dozens of memorable cartoon characters.


Winchell is best known as the voice of that bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy, ball of Fun! Fun! Fun! Fun! Fun! called Tigger.

Not bad for a boy who started out life with several handicaps. Born Paul Wilchin in New York City in 1922, his childhood was difficult: at age six, he contracted polio, later he developed a stammer. His mother was domineering, his family staunchly superstitious and extremely orthodox in their religious beliefs. Paul soon found solace on the radio, in particular in ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy. Showing the aptitude that would guide his future endeavors, he learned the art of vocal control, overcoming his stutter -- and his mother's stern objections -- to land an important appearance on the influential Major Bowes' Original Amateur Hour at age 13. He won first prize.

It would be another 12 years, however, before Winchell would crack the medium of his first fame, television. He debuted his ventriloquist act on NBC in 1947, on The Paul Winchell-Jerry Mahoney Show. Thanks to additional appearances on Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town (1949), The Bigelow Show (1948), and The Spiedel Show (1950), Winchell was poised for stardom. The death of his mother temporarily sidetracked his career, but he returned to TV with 1956's Circus Time. Now in demand, he frequented game shows like What's My Line? and other venues.

He polished a routine with his crackpot sidekick, Jerry Mahoney, and added the wildly popular dimwit, Knucklehead Smiff, to his cavalcade of characters. It wasn't long before he was dominating Saturday morning kid-vid with Winchell-Mahoney Time (1964). But comedy aimed at children was just part of Winchell's repertoire. He longed for more mature fair, and used opportunities on both The Speidel Show and his own shows to costar with Angela Lansbury, Peter Lorre, and Sir Cedric Hardwicke.

The '60s marked two major turning points in Winchell's life. First, he appeared on sitcoms like The Beverly Hillbillies, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Lucy Show, putting his penchant for crazy characterization to good use. He then moved into more eccentric offerings, guest-starring on Laugh-In and Love, American Style. It was around this time that Winchell, who had worked on The Jetsons, got the call from the House of Mouse. Disney was putting together an animated version of Winnie the Pooh, and wanted Winchell for the voice of that bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy, ball of Fun! Fun! Fun! Fun! Fun! known as Tigger. The rest, as they say, is entertainment mythology.

Winchell's interpretation of Pooh's frisky friend stood out in the Hundred Acre Wood. Channeling a definitive childlike quality, he perfected a rapid-fire delivery in combination with a daffy, dithering laugh. Tigger's first appearance in Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day helped to win the short an Oscar in 1968 and Winchell himself won a Grammy in 1974 for his rendition of the rascal's theme song ("The Wonderful Thing about Tiggers") in Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too. Winchell would play the beloved character for most of his career, finally retiring his version in 1999 when newcomer Jim Cummings took over (doing a variation of Winchell, of course).

Tigger wasn't Winchell's only cartoon creation. He appeared in many Hanna-Barbera offerings during the '60s and '70s, including Wacky Races (where he developed his other signature part, Dick Dastardly), The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, Help! It's The Hair Bear Bunch, and Hong Kong Fooey, among others. Indeed, Winchell chalked up dozens of animation roles, working for Disney again in The Aristocats and The Fox and the Hound, and made a brief appearance before the cameras in the 1972 kids game show, Runaround.

At the same time, he consistently pursued interests outside the entertainment industry. An avid inventor and tinkerer, Winchell spent countless hours in his home workshop, testing such clever contraptions as an illuminated ballpoint pen, battery heated gloves, and invisible garter belts. But Winchell wasn't merely interested in gadgetry. He wanted to help people, and in 1963, developed something he thought could solve one of the world's biggest health concerns. Long before its rise to prominence in the 1980s, Winchell held the first patent on the artificial heart, a device he developed with the help of his good friend Dr. Henry Heimlich (of the famous "maneuver"). He donated the design to the University of Utah, and even consulted with Robert Jarvik and Dr. William Devries before their monumental experiments with similar devices.

Winchell even spearheaded a solution to world hunger known as The Tilapia Project. With the help of Heimlich, as well as Richard Dreyfuss and Ed Asner, a proposal went before Congress to aid struggling nations with raising the Tilapia fish, a high protein food source easily cultivated in even the most unfavorable conditions. In typical form, the U.S. federal government gave a polite "Thanks, but no thanks."

In his later years, Winchell was an accomplished painter, a student of hypnotism, and a staunch critic of religious fundamentalism. He was married three times, most recently to his wife of 31 years, Jean Freeman. Winchell saw his legacy passed down to daughter April (one of his five children), who has worked with many of her dad's former employers in various voice-over capacities. Winchell credited Jean, who was British, for inspiring Tigger's signature send-off, "Ta-ta for now." There is perhaps no more appropriate way to say goodbye to this extraordinary man.

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