NEW YORK – Arte Johnson, a lurking presence on U.S. television’s “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” as a lecherous geriatric and a comic German soldier who found things on the show “verrry interesting” — but not necessarily funny — died on Wednesday at the age of 90, his family said.
Johnson died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles from heart failure following a three-year battle with bladder and prostate cancer, a statement from his family said.
The versatile Johnson won an Emmy for his work on Dan Rowan and Dick Martin’s “Laugh-In” in 1969 and was among the troupe members who developed breakout characters.
The top-rated, award-winning show aired from 1968 through 1973 and was a ground-breaking, fast-moving mix of comedy, music and social satire, all overlaid with a hippie-era psychedelic sensibility. Guest stars ranged from falsetto-voiced Tiny Tim to Richard Nixon, who once uttered one of the show’s catch phrases — “sock it to me” — during an appearance in the midst of his 1968 presidential campaign.
The diminutive Johnson would play as many as 10 characters — often with foreign accents — in an hour long “Laugh-in” episode. Three of those characters would become stand-outs — a man in a yellow raincoat who inexplicably rode a child-sized tricycle until he tipped over, the dirty old man Tyrone F. Horneigh and Wolfgang, the leering German soldier.
In the dirty old man sketches, Johnson paired with Ruth Buzzi’s spinster character Gladys, who would wallop him repeatedly with her purse when he approached her on a park bench, offered a candy bar and muttered pick-up lines such as, “Do you believe in the hereafter? Then you know what I’m here after.”
His soldier character would invariably pop up from hiding after a sketch, wearing a helmet and smoking a cigarette, and offer a critique along the lines of, “Verrry interesting — but stupid!” or “Verrry interesting — but not very funny.”
Johnson told the Chicago Tribune he came up with the line during his time at the University of Illinois after observing that German generals in World War II movies always seemed to be studying maps and saying, “Verrry interesting.”
Johnson, whose brother, Cos, was a “Laugh-In” writer, left the show in 1971 and did more television work, including several appearances on “The Love Boat,” “Fantasy Island” and “Love, American Style,” as well as voice-over work. He was Dracula’s valet in the 1979 movie spoof “Love at First Bite” and frequently narrated audio books, including several by humorist Dave Barry.
Before “Laugh-In,” Johnson’s career consisted of New York stage work, semi-regular sit-com parts starting in the late 1950s and one-off roles on popular 1960s shows such as “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Bewitched” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”
Johnson was born Jan. 29, 1929, in Benton Harbor, Michigan. He worked for a New York publishing house in the 1950s before auditioning for a play on a whim, which led to his performing career.
Johnson was successfully treated in 1997 for non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He is survived by his wife, Gisela Johnson, who he married in 1968, and his brother, Coslogh Johnson.