Johnson at the premiere of The Rose, November 1979
|Born||Arthur Stanton Eric Johnson
January 20, 1929
Benton Harbor, Berrien County
|Alma mater||University of Illinois (B.A., 1949)|
|Spouse(s)||Gisela Johnson (m. 1968)|
Arthur Stanton Eric "Arte" Johnson (born January 20, 1929) is an American comic actor who was a regular on television's Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. His best-remembered character was that of a German soldier with the catchphrase "Verrrry interesting", sometimes followed by, "but stupid" or "but not very funny."
Johnson was born January 20, 1929 in Benton Harbor, Michigan and is the son of Abraham Lincoln and Edythe Mackenzie (Golden) Johnson. His father was an attorney. Arte Johnson attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. He worked at the campus radio station and the UI Theater Guild with his brother Coslough "Cos" Johnson, and graduated in 1949.
He sought employment in Chicago advertising agencies but was unsuccessful and left for New York City to work for Viking Press. In early 1954, Johnson performed in several New York nightclubs, including Le Ruban Bleu and The Village Vanguard. His first job in show business came when he impulsively stepped into an audition line and was cast in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Johnson appeared in Ben Bagley's The Shoestring Revue, which opened off-Broadway Feb. 28, 1955 at the President Theater in New York. The show also starred Bea Arthur, Dody Goodman, Chita Rivera, and Jane Connell.
Early television and film roles
Johnson appeared three times in the 1955–1956 CBS sitcom It's Always Jan, starring Janis Paige and Merry Anders. In 1958, he joined the cast of the short-lived NBC sitcom, Sally, starring Joan Caulfield. In it he played Bascomb Bleacher, Jr., the son of a co-owner of a department store, Bascomb, Sr., portrayed by Gale Gordon. In 1960, he played Ariel Lavalerra in the film adaptation of Jack Kerouac's novel The Subterraneans.
In 1960 and 1961, he was cast in three episodes of Jackie Cooper's military sitcom/drama series, Hennesey, also on CBS. The following year, he played "Mr. Bates" in the episode "A Secret Life" on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He was cast in an episode of Frank Aletter's sitcom, Bringing Up Buddy. He also appeared in "The Whole Truth", a 1961 episode of The Twilight Zone, as an underpaid car salesman who punches dishonest used car lot owner Jack Carson. Before his big breakthrough in Laugh-In, Johnson appeared as Corporal Coogan in the 1962 episode "The Handmade Private" of the anthology series, GE True, hosted by Jack Webb.
Johnson appeared in a comedic role as Charlie, a boom-microphone operator who demonstrates to Jack Benny how to tell a joke properly, on The Jack Benny Program, aired on October 2, 1964. The joke performed in the sketch was the "ugly baby" story, later associated with Flip Wilson.
In 1965, he made a first-season guest appearance on the ABC's sitcom, Bewitched as Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery)'s Cousin Edgar. A mute elf, Edgar is initially sent to observe and undermine Samantha's marriage – all with the blessing of Endora (Agnes Moorehead). Once he sees how happily married Samantha and Darrin Stephens (Dick York) are, Edgar reverses his mischief and gives his (albeit quiet) blessing to their still-new marriage.
Johnson appeared in one of the final episodes of ABC's The Donna Reed Show in 1966. He was cast in the 1967 satirical James Coburn film The President's Analyst, in which he gave a comically chilling performance as a federal agent with a blindly obedient "orders-are-orders" mentality.
In 1968, he acted in the Season 3 episode of Lost in Space, "Princess of Space." Johnson played the traitorous Robot Space Pirate "Fedor" helping the machines to win the war.
Johnson also starred in the 1971 episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery entitled "The Flip-Side of Satan," playing ruthless, fringe-leather vested, disk jockey "J.J. Wilson", who is forced to confront his past transgressions.
Johnson is best known for his work on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, an American television series broadcast from 1967 to 1973. He played various characters including "Wolfgang," a smoking World War II German soldier, still fighting the war, who scouted the show from behind a bush. He would then invariably comment on the preceding sketch with the catchphrase "Very interesting ...", followed by either a comic observation or misinterpretation, or simply "but stupid!" Often toward the show's close, he (as the Nazi) would offer words of affection to 'Lucy and Gary' (Lucille Ball and her second husband, Gary Morton). THE LUCY SHOW was on CBS in direct competition with NBC's LAUGH-IN on Monday night. LAUGH-IN was a full hour show while Lucy was a traditional 30 minute sitcom. Lucy was pretty much the only show that could survive airing opposite LAUGH-IN.
Johnson indicated later that the phrase came from Desperate Journey, a 1942 World War II film with Errol Flynn and Ronald Reagan playing Royal Air Force pilots shot down in Nazi Germany. They manage to cross much of the country without speaking German, or knowing the territory, but, when captured, their Nazi interrogator doubts their story by saying "very interesting". Johnson reprised the role while voicing the Nazi-inspired character Virman Vunderbarr on an episode of Justice League Unlimited.
His other iconic Laugh-In character was "Tyrone F. Horneigh" (the last name pronounced "horn-eye," a "clean" variant of the vulgar term "horny"), the white-haired, trenchcoat-wearing "dirty old man" who repeatedly sought to seduce "Gladys Ormphby," (Ruth Buzzi's brown-clad "spinster" character) on a park bench. Tyrone would enter the scene, muttering a song (usually "In the Merry, Merry Month of May"), and, spying Gladys on the bench, would sit next to her. He would ask two related "leading questions," each earning him a hard whack from a shocked Gladys's purse. His third statement would be an appeal for medical assistance, at which point he would fall off the bench.
Referring to an only moderately popular candy made from caramel and walnuts, Tyrone would also frequently ask Gladys, "How about a Walnetto?"
Years after Laugh-In ended, the two characters were made into an animated Saturday-morning children's show, Baggy Pants and the Nitwits with Tyrone as a helpful, muttering "superhero."
Arte and his brother, Cos, earned their Emmy Awards while working on Laugh-In.
In 1973, Johnson guest-starred in an episode of the situation comedy A Touch of Grace. In 1974, he appeared in the first season of the Detroit-produced children's show Hot Fudge. He also appeared, for one week in 1974, as a celebrity guest panelist on the game show Match Game. In the late 1970s, he was a semi-regular celebrity guest panelist on The Gong Show.
In 1976, he played the animated cartoon character "Misterjaw", a blue, German-accented shark (with a bow tie and top hat), who liked to leap out of the water and shout "HEEGotcha!" or "Gotcha!" at unsuspecting folks on The Pink Panther Laugh-and-a-Half Hour-and-a-Half Show. He also voiced the character "Rhubarb" on The Houndcats. Also in 1976, he appeared as a guest on Canadian TV show Celebrity Cooks with host Bruno Gerussi and a clip from his episode was featured in the opening credits until the show ended in 1987.
In September 1977, Johnson appeared on an episode of the NBC daytime version of Wheel of Fortune as a substitute letter-turner, both to fill-in for an injured Susan Stafford, and to promote his short-lived NBC game show Knockout, which aired through early 1978. Instead of being introduced by the show's announcer, he would start the show with a small monologue, then the announcer would introduce the day's contestants.
In 1979, he was cast as "Renfield," the comic sidekick of George Hamilton's Dracula in the surprise box office smash, Love At First Bite. The following year he appeared in the all-star television disaster movie Condominium.
In 1985, he voiced "Weerd" in The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo, and played a disgruntled employee denied severance pay in an episode of Airwolf. He also voiced several characters, such as: Dr. Ludwig Von Strangebuck and Count Ray on two episodes of Ducktales, Devil Smurf on The Smurfs, Top Cat and Lou on Yo Yogi!, Newt on Animaniacs, and many other shows.
In 1990, Johnson appeared in an episode of Night Court.
- Weekly Variety, Jan. 20, 1954; April 7, 1954.
- "'Old Faces of 2002': Peter Marshall and Arte Johnson". USA Today. January 21, 2005. Retrieved April 25, 2010.
- "Berlin Correspondent (1942)". The New York Times. Retrieved October 12, 2011.