Arte Johnson has died at the age of 90.
Short in stature (he was 5-feet-4-inches tall) but big on talent, the celebrated actor made television viewers laugh as Arte acted in a number of small-screen hits. His most memorable, though, was the sketch comedy series Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.
Just before the impish Emmy winner was picked for the iconic sketch comedy series — a precursor to Saturday Night Live — he was selling suits in Beverly Hills. Sadly, his acting career had come to a standstill, so perhaps it was kismet that the show’s creator and executive producer, George Schlatter, found Johnson just in the nick of time.
He had been searching for “funny and magic people,” and picked funny, magical Johnson, who initially broke out his German soldier bit with Bob Hope.
At the time, Hope was known for his USO tours, so when Arne showed up onstage, the comedian was in the middle of his monologue. At that point, Arte — dressed like his future Laugh-In character — came out and said, “Every Christmas we waited for you.”
“Hope didn’t know what to think of him,” stated Schlatter in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter (THR).
For context, Schlatter also let THR know about the strange birth of Laugh-In.
“The show was an accident. NBC never meant to buy it. I’d been working on.. an earlier version of the Grammy Awards but before they could afford to actually pay for the awards. They’d asked me to keep doing it but I said I would only if I could do one show my way with no interference or rules. They said yes without really meaning it.”
After Laugh-In had been sold and casting was completed, the performers — who famously also included a very young Goldie Hawn, Ruth Buzzi, and Lily Tomlin — were always finding unique ways to come up with new characters. Schlatter was fond of those characters who could somehow show any sign of the times even if that character came out of sad situations in which Baby Boomers’ parents could relate, like World War II.
Schlatter said that Arte came over to his house one Easter “dressed up as the Easter Nazi, laying eggs all over the front yard.” And so, his rendition of that character — a German soldier named Wolfgang who thought World War II was still happening — coined one of the show’s many catch phrases. His “very interesting” became regular fare and his career was, once again, off and running.
Arte was prolific with his Laugh-In bits, as his IMDb profile points out.
“His repertoire… included Tyrone F. Horneigh, a dirty old man who accosts Ruth Buzzi on a park bench in Laugh-In, Piotr Rosmenko, an Eastern European song-and-dance man, Rabbi Shankar, an addled Indian guru and a man in a yellow raincoat who [kept] falling off his tricycle.”
Johnson, who won a 1969 Emmy for his work on Laugh-In, only worked on four of the six seasons the hit show aired. He went on to appear on dozens of television shows, from Murder, She Wrote to Night Court. He even enjoyed an arc on the popular soap opera General Hospital.
RIP, Arte Johnson. You made everyone who had the pleasure of watching you laugh out loud.