Arte Johnson, ‘Verrry Interesting’ Comic Actor, Dies @ 90

Not long after the passing of similarly zany comic Tim Conway, also known for a bag of lunatic personae, Arte Johnson has died at 90.

As creepy Renfield, with George Hamilton, in Love at First Bite (Image via AIP)

He died after fighting bladder and prostate cancer for three years, his family announced.

Born January 20, 1929, Johnson's career stretched back to the early '50s, with stints on Broadway in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and No Time for Sergeants, but he was best-remembered for his four-year, Emmy-winning stint on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In (1967-1971), on which he portrayed such characters as a Nazi soldier whose catchphrase was "verrry interesting" (inspired by the 1942 Ronald Reagan stinker Desperate Journey) and a dirty old man.

Some of his characters wouldn't pass muster today, including Indian guru Rabbi Shankar. However, he did his characters with a complete understanding of the ridiculousness of being a short white guy playing a person of another race, saying as far back as 1974, "If I were doing a Hasidic rabbi, I'd have him speak with an Irish accent… You take it out of reality and make it cartoon-esque without being denigrating. Because people today are so sensitive, it's the only way of creating humor without offending someone." A quote that could have been uttered in 2019, and that sounds more at home here, don't you think?

An ad-libber, double-talker and master of dialects, Johnson had not worked on camera since 1998's The Modern Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and only once lent his distinctive voice to a project, 2005's Justice League Unlimited, in the past 20-plus years.

Before his career tapered off, Johnson was ubiquitous on TV, appearing regularly from 1954 until 1998. He had recurring roles or voice roles on It's Always Jan (1955-1956), Sally (1958), Hennesey (1960-1961), Don't Call Me Charlie (1962-1963), The Houndcats (1972-1973), Baggy Pants & the Nitwits (1977), The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo (1985) and Glitter (1984-1985), and appeared on many popular series of the '60s, '70s and '80s.

A rare movie appearance came when he portrayed Renfield in the 1979 smash Love at First Bite, a Dracula spoof starring and produced by George Hamilton.

Johnson is survived by his wife, Gisela, of over 50 years, and his brother.

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