Arte Johnson, a comic actor who won an Emmy for playing a diverse troupe of characters on the groundbreaking comedy show “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” died on Wednesday in Los Angeles. He was 90.
His death was announced by a spokesman, Harlan Boll, who said Mr. Johnson had bladder and prostate cancer.
A diminutive, bespectacled man with sandy hair, Mr. Johnson summoned everything from manic energy to an old man’s tired shuffle in films and television shows of the 1950s and ’60s. But he was largely unknown until he became part of a cast that included Goldie Hawn, Lily Tomlin, Ruth Buzzi and Alan Sues on “Laugh-In,” the manic and at times surreal sketch-comedy show that inspired later successes like “Saturday Night Live.”
After opening with patter between the hosts, the comedy team of Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, each week’s episode quickly degenerated into a torrent of humor both physical and topical, punctuated by often groan-inducing jokes, surprise guest stars (including, on one memorable occasion, Richard Nixon), catchphrases and brief shots of dancers in bikinis.
Mr. Johnson was a one-man ensemble, delivering lines that might otherwise fall flat in more accents than a meeting of United Nations ambassadors. His characters included Tyrone Horneigh, a lascivious old man who accosted a woman played by Ms. Buzzi with amorous one-liners; Rosmenko, a Russian with tortured syntax; and Rabbi Shankar, a blissed-out guru.
But his most popular character was probably Wolfgang Busch, a helmeted German soldier (named after his brother-in-law) who would peer through bushes at the end of a sketch before slowly uttering, “Very interesting,” often followed by a qualifier like “but stupid” or “but not very funny.” The phrase was so popular that Mr. Johnson recorded a song, “Very Interesting,” with Ms. Buzzi. (The B-side was a song on which Ms. Buzzi sang lead called “Don’t Futz Around.”)
Mr. Johnson said he wasn’t sure where the phrase came from but thought it was from a World War II film in which Allied soldiers had to cross Germany after their plane is downed. He said he had used it as an interjection at a party and George Schlatter, the executive producer and creator of “Laugh-In,” overheard and decided to incorporate it into the show.
Mr. Johnson said, in an interview for this obituary in 2013, that he had developed his aptitude for accents while taking public transportation in Chicago as a young man.
“Chicago is made up of many ethnic islands, and people would be sitting around me and talking in their various ethnic dialects,” he said. “To me it was like music.”
Arthur Stanton Eric Johnson was born on Jan. 20, 1929, in Benton Harbor, Mich. His father, Abraham Lincoln Johnson, was a lawyer. His mother was Edythe Mackenzie (Goldberg) Johnson. He originally billed himself as Art E. Johnson because there was another Arthur Johnson in the actors union. (The later “Arte” was pronounced “ART-ee.”)
He later lived in Chicago, where he graduated from Austin High School before receiving a bachelor’s degree in radio journalism from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign in 1949.
He worked in public relations in Chicago for a time before moving to New York. His performing career began, he said, when he was walking back to a dull entry-level job at Viking Press after lunch and stumbled on an open audition for the Broadway musical “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” He auditioned on a whim and won a small, uncredited part.
“It was a total gift. It was preposterous,” Mr. Johnson said. “I went in having no idea what I was doing, but there I was. I was in showbiz.”
He developed his characters at resorts in the Pocono Mountains and appeared in the Off Broadway show “The Shoestring Revue” and on television shows including “The Jack Benny Program,” on which he leapt onstage and loudly corrected Benny as he told a joke, and “The Twilight Zone,” on which he played an unhappy car salesman, before his break on “Laugh-In.”
Mr. Johnson parted ways with “Laugh-In” before the show’s last season — a decision he said he came to regret. “It wasn’t the brightest move of my life,” he said. “If I had to do it over again I wouldn’t have left.”
His success on “Laugh-In” led to a half-hour special in 1971; stints hosting other programs, including the short-lived game show “Knockout;” and repeat appearances on series like “The Love Boat” and “General Hospital.” He voiced a character named Tyrone on the cartoon series “Baggypants and the Nitwits,” which also featured the voice of Ruth Buzzi, in 1977, and played Renfield in the vampire movie comedy “Love at First Bite,” with George Hamilton as Count Dracula, in 1979.
Mr. Johnson kept acting into the 2000s and also recorded books on tape, including Gary Shteyngart’s “Absurdistan,” for which he used his mastery of accents to great advantage. He did voice-over work on cartoon shows like “Justice League Unlimited,” on which he reused his Teutonic timbre, and “Animaniacs.”
He married Gisela Busch in 1968. She survives him, as does his brother, Coslough, a comedy writer who won an Emmy for his work on “Laugh-In.”
Mr. Johnson said he never got tired of saying “Very interesting,” even though he had repeated the phrase for years.
“It was really so important to my career,” he said. “I had no problem with it.”
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