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R.I.P. Laugh-In star Arte Johnson

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The Hollywood Reporter reports that Emmy-winning Laugh-In star Arte Johnson has died in Los Angeles. He was 90.


The hard-working and diminutive (5'4") Johnson had an entertainment career that went on for five decades. He started out on comedy shows like The Red Skelton Show and The Dinah Shore Chevy Hour in the earliest days of television, as well as sitcoms like The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Donna Reed Show. But his greatest fame came on the madcap ensemble series Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, an attempt to adapt the days of classic screwball variety comedy to the hippie era that ran from 1968 to 1973. Johnson won an Emmy as a member of a talented cast that also included Goldie Hawn, Lily Tomlin, and Henry Gibson.

Johnson was best known for his Laugh-In breakout characters, like Wolfgang, the German soldier who thought World War II was still going on. The Hollywood Reporter says he got the idea for the character “while watching Errol Flynn and Ronald Reagan battle the Nazis in the 1942 movie Desperate Journey.” Another noteworthy character was the subtly titled Tyrone F. Horneigh, the grizzled old man who would make a play for Ruth Buzzi on a park bench as she swatted him with her large purse.

Johnson was gifted at accents and dialects, and could perform a multitude of characters. He revealed in a 1972 interview, “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.”

After his four seasons on Laugh-In, Johnson continued his TV work, becoming a favorite on anthology series like Love American Style, The Love Boat, and Fantasy Island. His vocal flexibility made him quite popular in voiceover work, in cartoons from The Smurfs to The Animaniacs. He also recorded audio books for authors like humorist Dave Barry.

Johnson had previously donated his Laugh-In scripts to the communications archives of his alma mater, the University Of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. Johnson and his wife, Gisele, celebrated their 50th anniversary last year; he is also survived by his twin brother Coslough, who was a writer on comedy shows like Laugh-In, The Monkees, and Good Times.