Ed Wynn (November 9, 1886 – June 19, 1966) was an American comedian and actor noted for his Perfect Fool comedy character, his pioneering radio show of the 1930s, and his later career as a dramatic actor.
Wynn began his career in vaudeville in 1903 and was a star of the Ziegfeld Follies starting in 1914. During The Follies of 1915, W. C. Fields allegedly caught Wynn mugging for the audience under the table during his "Pool Room" routine and knocked him unconscious with his cue. Wynn wrote, directed, and produced many Broadway shows in the subsequent decades, and was known for his silly costumes and props as well as for the giggly, wavering voice he developed for the 1921 musical review, The Perfect Fool.
Ed Wynn was a Jewish-American comedian who was born Isaiah Edwin Leopold in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His father, who manufactured and sold women's hats, was born in Bohemia. His mother, of Romanian and Turkish ancestry, came from Istanbul. Wynn attended Central High School in Philadelphia until age 15. He ran away from home in his teens, worked as a hat salesman and as a utility boy, and eventually adapted his middle name "Edwin" into his new stage name, "Ed Wynn," to save his family the embarrassment of having a lowly comedian as a relative.
Ed Wynn as "Mr. Busybody" 1908 Although many gag writers later provided material for Wynn's performances in radio, television and movies, he was proud to boast that he had written every line he ever spoke during his early career as a stage performer.
In the early 1930s Wynn hosted the popular radio show The Fire Chief, heard in North America on Tuesday nights, sponsored by Texaco gasoline. Like many former vaudeville performers who turned to radio in the same decade, the stage-trained Wynn insisted on playing for a live studio audience, doing each program as an actual stage show, using visual bits to augment his written material, and in his case, wearing a colorful costume with a red fireman's helmet. He usually bounced his gags off announcer/straight man Graham McNamee; Wynn's customary opening, "Tonight, Graham, the show's gonna be different," became one of the most familiar tag-lines of its time; a sample joke: "Graham, my uncle just bought a new second-handed car... he calls it Baby! I don't know, it won't go anyplace without a rattle!"
Wynn reprised his Fire Chief radio character in two movies, Follow the Leader (1930) and The Chief (1933). Near the height of his radio fame (1933) he founded his own short-lived radio network the Amalgamated Broadcasting System, which lasted only five weeks, nearly destroying the comedian. According to radio historian Elizabeth McLeod, the failed venture left Wynn deep in debt, divorced and finally, suffering a nervous breakdown.
Wynn was offered the title role in MGM's 1939 screen adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, but turned it down, as did his Ziegfeld contemporary W. C. Fields. The part went to Frank Morgan.
In the 1949-50 season, Ed Wynn hosted one of the first comedy-variety television shows, on CBS, and won both a Peabody Award and an Emmy Award in 1949. Buster Keaton, Lucille Ball, and The Three Stooges all made guest appearances with Wynn. This was the first CBS variety television show to originate in Los Angeles, with programs filmed via kinescope for distribution in the Midwest and East. Wynn was also a rotating host of NBC's Four Star Revue from 1950 through 1952.
After the end of Wynn's third television series, The Ed Wynn Show (a short-lived situation comedy on NBC's 1958-59 schedule), his son, actor Keenan Wynn, encouraged him to make a career change rather than retire. The comedian reluctantly began a career as a dramatic actor in television and movies. Father and son appeared in three productions, the first of which was the 1956 Playhouse 90 broadcast of Rod Serling's play Requiem for a Heavyweight. Ed was terrified of straight acting and kept goofing his lines in rehearsal. When the producers wanted to fire him, star Jack Palance said he would quit if they fired Ed. (However, unbeknownst to Wynn, supporting player Ned Glass was his secret understudy in case something did happen before air time.) On live broadcast night, Wynn surprised everyone with his pitch-perfect performance, and his quick ad libs to cover his mistakes. A dramatization of what happened during the production was later staged as an April 1960 Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse episode, "The Man In the Funny Suit," starring both senior and junior Wynns, with key figures involved in the original production also portraying themselves. Ed and his son also worked together in the Jose Ferrer film The Great Man, with Ed again proving his unexpected skills in drama.
Requiem established Wynn as serious dramatic actor who could easily hold his own with the best. His role in The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) won him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Also in 1959, Wynn appeared on Serling's TV series The Twilight Zone in "One for the Angels". Serling, a longtime admirer, had written that episode especially for him, and Wynn later in 1963 starred in the episode "Ninety Years Without Slumbering." For the rest of his life, Wynn skillfully moved between comic and dramatic roles. He appeared in feature films and anthology television, endearing himself to new generations of fans.
Wynn was caricatured in the Merrie Melodies cartoon short Shuffle Off to Buffalo (1933) and as a pot of jam in the Betty Boop short Betty in Blunderland (1934).
He appeared as the Fairy Godfather in Jerry Lewis' Cinderfella. His performance as Paul Beaseley in the 1958 film The Great Man earned him nominations for a "Best Supporting Actor" Golden Globe Award and a "Best Foreign Actor" BAFTA Award. The following year saw him receive his first (and only) nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Mr. Dussell in The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). Six years later he would also appear in the Bible epic The Greatest Story Ever Told.
Wynn provided the voice of the Mad Hatter in Walt Disney's film, Alice in Wonderland, but many baby boomer children remember him most fondly for his role as The Toymaker alongside Mouseketeer Annette Funicello and Tommy Sands in Walt Disney's Babes in Toyland released in 1961.
Possibly his best-remembered film appearance, though, was as Uncle Albert in Walt Disney's Mary Poppins (1964). His segment involved the eccentric man floating around just beneath the ceiling in uncontrollable mirth, singing "I Love to Laugh" and was one of the film's highlights.
Re-teaming with the Disney team the following year, in That Darn Cat! (1965) featuring Dean Jones and Hayley Mills, Wynn filled out the character of Mr. Hofstedder, the watch jeweler with his bumbling charm. He also had brief roles in The Absent Minded Professor (as the fire chief, in a scene alongside his son Keenan Wynn, who played the film's antagonist) and Son of Flubber (as county agricultural agent A.J. Allen). His final performance, as Rufus in Walt Disney's The Gnome-Mobile was released a few months after his death.
In addition to Disney films, Wynn was also a popular character in the Disneyland production The Golden Horseshoe Revue.
Wynn died June 19, 1966 in Beverly Hills, California of throat cancer, aged 79. He was interred in the Fuschia Terrace in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, and his gravestone reads "Dear God, Thanks... Ed Wynn."
According to his granddaughter Hilda Levine, Walt Disney served as one of his casket bearers. Red Skelton, who was discovered by Wynn, stated: "His death is the first time he ever made anyone sad."
The distinctive voice which Wynn created for his "Perfect Fool" character has remained much imitated. Hanna-Barbera's Wally Gator's voice, performed by Daws Butler, was an impersonation of the Perfect Fool, as was Paul Frees's Captain Peter Peachfuzz character in The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Other notable characters inspired by Wynn include: Terrytoons' Gandy Goose, Doctor Blinky in H.R. Pufnstuf, Fleegle in the Banana Splits, Mayor McCheese in commercials for "McDonaldland," Chef Kawasaki in Kirby: Right Back At Ya!, Thanatos in Kid Icarus Uprising, Choose Goose in Adventure Time, Fred the Lion in Super Chicken, King Candy in Wreck-It Ralph, Zagraz in He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, and Multo in the PBS animated series Zula Patrol. He is frequently imitated by Ralph Garman of the "Hollywood Babble-On" podcast on Kevin Smith's SModcast network, by Mike Bell of the "Attack Of The 50ft Nerds" podcast on the Panels On Pages PoP!-Cast Network, and by comedian Baron Vaughn.
In computer animated versions of Max Lucado's Wemmicks book series, the Mayor speaks much like Wynn.
Wynn was posthumously named a Disney Legend on August 10, 2013.
"A comic says funny things. A comedian says things funny."
"Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Heck, I'll take that and more!"
"Life is for the living!"
"Y'know..." (said at the end of almost every line)
Broadway and films
The Deacon and the Lady (1910) - musical - actor/performer
Ziegfeld Follies of 1914 (1914) - revue - actor/performer
Ziegfeld Follies of 1915 (1915) - revue - actor/performer
The Passing Show of 1916 (1916) - revue - actor/performer
Sometime (1918) - play - actor
Ed Wynn's Carnival (1920) - revue - composer, lyricist, book-writer and performer/actor
The All-Star Idlers of 1921 (1921) - revue - actor/performer
The Perfect Fool (1921) - revue - composer, lyricist, book-writer, director and actor/performer
The Grab Bag (1924) - revue - producer, composer, lyricist, book-writer and actor/performer
Manhattan Mary (1927) - musical - actor in the role of "Crickets"
Simple Simon (1930) - musical - co-book-writer and actor
Revived in 1931 (was also producer in addition to above roles)
The Laugh Parade (1931) - revue - producer, co-book-writer, director, originator and star actor/performer
The Chief (1933) - actor (as Henry Summers)
Midsummer Night's Dream (1935) - actor, uncredited
Alice Takat (1936) - play - producer
Hooray for What! (1937) - musical - actor in the role of "Chuckles"
Morose Thoughts (1941) - revue - producer, book co-author, and actor
Boys and Girls Together (1940) - revue - producer, co-book-writer, originator, director and actor/performer
Laugh, Town, Laugh! (1942) - revue - producer, book-writer and director
Stage Door Canteen (1943) - as himself
Alice in Wonderland (1951) - voice actor (as Mad Hatter)
Marjorie Morningstar (1958) - actor (as uncle Samson)
The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) - actor (as Fritz Pfeffer)
Cinderfella (1960) - actor (as the fairy godfather)
Babes in Toyland (1961) - actor (as The Toy Maker)
The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) - actor (as Fire Chief)
The Sound of Laughter (1962) - actor (as host and narrator)
Son of Flubber (1963 film) - actor (as Dept. of Agriculture agent)
Mary Poppins (1964) - actor (as Uncle Albert)
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965 film) - actor (as Old Aram)
Dear Brigitte (1965 film) - actor (as The Captain and Narrator)
That Darn Cat! (1965) - actor (as Mr. Hofstedder)
Those Calloways (1965) - actor (as Ed Parker)
The Daydreamer (film) (1966) - voice actor (as The Emperor)
The Gnome-Mobile (1967) - actor (as Rufus) - released after his death
Radio Journeys: Texaco Fire Chief (July 26, 1932)
Those Calloways (1965)
1. Obituary Variety, June 22, 1966, page 71.
2. "New York Hoorays for Ed Wynn" , LIFE, December 20, 1937, p. 46
3. "August Clown" , LIFE, July 26, 1948, p. 74
4. "August Clown" , LIFE, July 26, 1948, p. 70
5. Wilfred T. Neill (January 2, 1979). "Famed comedian Ed Wynn once owned theater in New Port Richey". St. Petersburg Times. Biography of Ed Wynn at Turner Classic Movies.
6. McLeod, Elizabeth. "Tonight The Program's Gonna Be Different!The Life and Times of Ed Wynn, The Fire Chief". Old Time Radio Researchers Group.
7. "The Ed Wynn Show, 1950". Internet Archive - Moving Image Archive.
8. Time, July 1, 1966
9. Steve Jobs, Dick Clark, Billy Crystal, John Goodman among Disney Legends Awards recipients announced for 2013 D23 Expo.