Mr. Johnson Teaches Us About the “Art” of Television Acting

As we continue honoring revered television actors who passed away in 2019, Arte Johnson certainly is at the top of the list. Although he accepted roles in movies, most of his work was on the small screen.

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Arte was born in Benton Harbor, Michigan in 1929. Acting was not Arte’s first profession. He graduated with a radio journalism major from Illinois and decided to pursue a career in the advertising world. He left Chicago when he could find no ad agency jobs and moved to New York where he began at Viking Press. He loved books and collected them throughout his life.

Unlike the stories of people who hone their craft in hundreds of auditions in the Big Apple, Arte impulsively stepped into an audition line for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and got the part. His real name was Arthur and he decided on Art E. Johnson for his stage name, but “Arte” was mistakenly printed on the playbill, and he decided he liked that better.

Although acting began easily for him, after he moved to LA, his career hit a rough spot and he did take a job as a men’s clothing salesman for a while at Carroll & Co. in Beverly Hills.

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It’s Always Jan

Arte began on television in the 1950s. In the mid-50s, he had a recurring role on It’s Always Jan starring Janis Paige and Merry Anders. A widowed nightclub singer, Janis Stewart, shares a small apartment with an aspiring actress, a secretary, and her daughter. Arte plays a deli employee, showing up in 4 of the 26 episodes.

He was cast as in his first ongoing role later that year. He played Bascomb Bleacher, Jr. on Sally. His father, a department store owner, was played by Gale Gordon. This show about a girl who worked in a department store who became a wealthy matron’s companion also lasted 26 episodes.

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Cousin Edgar on Bewitched

During the 1960s, Arte would appear in 32 different series, including The Twilight Zone, The Andy Griffith Show, McHale’s Navy, Bewitched, Lost in Space, The Donna Reed Show, and I Dream of Jeannie. Once again, he was cast as a regular on a show, Don’t Call Me Charlie. If you’re not familiar with the show, you are not alone. The show starred Josh Peine as a rural veterinarian who is drafted into the Army. He leaves Iowa and heads for Paris. Like Gomer Pyle he retains his simple view of life and his “Sargent Carter” is Colonel Barker. Johnson played the part of Col. Lefkowitz.

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The Cast of Laugh In

In 1968, Arte was offered a job that would change his life. Along with a handful of other cast members, he appeared on the new edgy Laugh-In. This is a hard show to describe if you never watched it. (It does appear on the Decades channel quite often.) The show was comprised of fast-moving comedy bits featuring guest stars, skits, regulars performing specific characters, gags, and punchlines in rapid format. It was quite different from anything else that had ever appeared in television. Arte was on the show from 1967-1971.

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“Wolfgang”

He was a master of accents and is best known for the characters he created on this show. “Wolfgang” was a cigarette-smoking German soldier hiding out who refused to believe WWII had ended. One of Arte’s taglines was “Verrrrry Interrrrresting.” He would also be seen in a yellow raincoat riding a tricycle that he would fall off from.

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Tyrone and Gladys

Another favorite was “Tyrone” who was an old man wearing a trench coat, always trying to seduce Ruth Buzzy’s “Gladys” on a park bench. She would hit him with her purse, and he often fell off the bench. Oddly, in a far-reaching concept, years later these two characters formed the nexus of a Saturday morning cartoon show, Baggy Pants and the Nitwits.

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On The Partridge Family

During the 1970s, Johnson continued his television appearances with 17 different series, including two roles on The Partridge Family and several on Love American Style. He also could be seen on Match Game and Hollywood Squares.

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His prolific career continued through the 1980s where he was seen on 25 different shows, including Murder She Wrote and The Love Boat. At the end of the ’80s, he began voicing characters for animation shows, but in the 1990s he accepted roles on 14 shows, including Night Court.

At the end of his career, his love of books provided him an opportunity to begin recording the narration for more than 80 audiobooks, including Dave Barry Is Not Making This Up in 2005.

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Married to his wife Gisela since 1968, he survived a battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 1997. In 2006 he retired from acting. He passed away mid-year in 2019 after suffering from bladder and prostate cancer. Ruth Buzzy, his comrade on Laugh-In, shared this message upon his death: “Thank you for a wonderful half-century of friendship. I could not have shared the spotlight with a nicer guy. Rest in peace. And yes, Arte Johnson, I believe in the hereafter.”

I like to think Arte is working on some skits, waiting for Ruth Buzzy, and some day when we get to heaven, we’ll be able to watch Gladys and Tyrone team up for us again.

The Respectable Career of Mr. Torn: Why You’ll Never Feel Ripped Off Watching Him Perform

As another year comes to a close, I wanted to take the month of December to remember some of the amazing television stars who passed away in 2019. In previous blogs during 2019, we discussed Tim Conway, Katherine Helmond, Peggy Lipton, and Peter Tork. We’ll be learning about Valerie Harper’s career in January.

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We start our tributes with Rip Torn, born Elmore Rual Torn Jr. in 1931 in Texas. Rip was a name that many men in his family used. Torn had an unlikely acting career path. He attended Texas A&M and the University of Texas where he majored in animal husbandry. During his time there, he did study acting with Shakespeare professor B. Iden Payne. His not-well-thought-out plan was to hitchhike to Hollywood, become a movie star, and retire after making enough money to buy a ranch. Although it was a dubious beginning, he would go on to a sixty-year career in the acting profession.

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The Cincinnati Kid

He made his movie debut in 1956 in Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll. In the same year, he married Ann Wedgeworth. They would remain married for five years until he divorced her to marry Geraldine Page. He and Geraldine were married until her death in 1987.

He worked a number of odd jobs and took several television roles. When he got serious about his acting, he moved to New York City to study under Lee Strasberg. Later a relative of his, cousin Sissy Spacek, would also study under Strasberg. Along with acting, Torn studied dance with Martha Graham during his early years in New York. He made his Broadway debut in “Sweet Bird of Youth” in 1959 and was nominated for a Tony. He would continue to weave in and out of Broadway and Off-Broadway for the rest of his career. He didn’t limit himself, continuing to star in Broadway, movies, and television, winning two Obie awards for “The Deer Park” and “The Beard.” He later opened a stage company.

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The Man Who Fell to Earth

Torn never lacked work. His roles varied as lead, second lead, supporting, and character. He took on a variety of roles in his movies. In 1965 he was Slade in The Cincinnati Kid with Steve McQueen. The part of George Hanson in Easy Rider, which was released in 1969, was written for Torn by Terry Southern. However, Rip did not get along with Dennis Hopper and withdrew from the film. Jack Nicholson took over the role, propelling his rise to stardom. Rip portrayed a country and western singer in Payday in 1972. In 1976, he joined David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth. He was a politician 1979 in The Seduction of Joe Tynan with Alan Alda and Meryl Streep. In 1983 he was nominated for a best supporting Oscar for Cross Creek, the true story of how Marjorie Rawlings wrote The Yearling.

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Airplane II: The Sequel

Most of his performances were in dramas, but he could also tackle comedy. Torn accepted the role of airline executive in Airplane II: The Sequel (1982) and as a tourist with John Candy in Summer Rental (1985).

In 1989 Torn would marry Amy Wright whom he was married to until his death this year when he passed away in July.

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Men in Black

Many younger fans associate him with his role in Men in Black and Men in Black II in the late ‘90s and early 2000s where he worked with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.

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The Man From UNCLE

Although Torn may be best known for his movie roles, he had a long and prolific television career. In the 1950s he appeared on the small screen eleven times, primarily in the drama and theater series so prevalent at that time. The 1960s found him in twenty series including The Man from UNCLE, Dr. Kildare, and Rawhide. In the 1970s, his television roles were primarily in crime shows with one appearance on Bonanza. While he did not appear in any series in the 1980s, he did show up in many made-for-tv-movies. During his career, he would appear in 32 tv movies and about a dozen mini-series.

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The Larry Sanders Show

As Artie, the television producer on The Larry Sanders Show, he was nominated six years in a row (1992-1998) for an Emmy, winning in 1996.In addition to his time on The Larry Sanders Show, he also accepted eight other tv roles in the 1990s, including an appearance on Columbo. After 2000, he would show up on television six more times, including a recurring role on Will and Grace. He had a recurring role on 30 Rock as the Chief Executive Officer of General Electric from 2007-2009.

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On 30 Rock

Unfortunately, he got into some trouble in 2010. He claimed that got him fired from 30 Rock, but no one at the show ever confirmed that. He was arrested after breaking into a bank office close to his residence. He was charged with carrying a firearm without a permit, carrying a firearm while intoxicated, trespassing, and criminal mischief. He said he broke in thinking the bank was his home. His lawyer told the judge Torn had a severe alcohol abuse problem. Torn was given a $100,000 bail and began treatment. One article I read cited that Torn was arrested three times for driving while intoxicated before this arrest.

I don’t know if he ever bought that ranch, but he earned the respect of generations of actors. He chose roles that interested him and didn’t worry if his part was the lead actor or a secondary role. He was not focused on whether a part would lead to a financial payday, choosing roles that were interesting or challenging to play. RIP Rip.

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Will and Grace