Paul Winchell (December 21, 1922 – June 24, 2005) was an American ventriloquist, voice actor and comedian, whose career flourished in the 1950s and 1960s. From 1950-1954, he hosted The Paul Winchell Show, which also used two other titles during its prime time run on NBC, The Speidel Show and What’s My Name? From 1965-1968, Winchell hosted the children’s television series, Winchell-Mahoney Time.
Winchell, who had medical training, was also an inventor, becoming the first person to build and patent a mechanical artificial heart, implantable in the chest cavity (US Patent #3097366). He has been honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his work in television.
Winchell was born Paul Wilchinsky in New York City, New York, the son of Solomon and Clara (Fuchs) Wilchinsky. His father was a tailor; his grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Poland and Austria-Hungary.
Winchell’s initial ambition was to become a doctor, but the Depression wiped out any chance of his family being able to afford medical school tuition. At age 13, he contracted polio; while recovering, he happened on a magazine ad offering a ventriloquism kit for ten cents. Back at school, he asked his art teacher, Jerry Magon, if he could receive class credit for creating a ventriloquist’s dummy. Mr. Magon was agreeable, and Winchell named his creation Jerry Mahoney, by way of thanks.
Winchell went back to reading magazines, gathering jokes from them and putting together a comedy routine which he then took to the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, winning first prize. A touring offer, playing various theaters with the Major Bowes Review, was part of the prize. Bandleader Ted Weems saw the young Winchell while on tour; he visited Winchell and made him an offer of employment. Winchell accepted and became a professional at age 14.
Winchell’s best-known ventriloquist dummies were Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff. Mahoney was carved by Chicago-based figure maker Frank Marshall. Sometime later Winchell had basswood copies of Jerry’s head made by a commercial duplicating service. One became the upgraded Jerry Mahoney that is seen primarily throughout Winchell’s television career. He modified two other copies to create Knucklehead Smiff. The original Marshall Jerry Mahoney and one copy of Knucklehead Smiff are in storage at the Smithsonian Institution.
Winchell’s first show as a ventriloquist was on radio with Jerry Mahoney in 1943. The program was short-lived, however, as he was overshadowed by Edgar Bergen. Winchell also created Oswald, a character that resembled Humpty Dumpty. The effect was accomplished by painting eyes and a nose on his chin, then adding a “body” covering the rest of his face, and finally electronically turning the camera image upside down. In 1961, Berwin Novelties introduced a home version of the character that included an Oswald body, creative pencils to draw the eyes and nose and a “magic mirror” that automatically turned a reflection upside down.
During the 1950s, Winchell hosted children’s and adult programs with his figures for NBC Television, and later for syndication. The NBC Saturday morning program, sponsored by Tootsie Roll, featured a clubhouse motif and a theme song co-written by Winchell and his longtime bandleader and on-air sidekick, Milton DeLugg. On one episode, The Three Stooges appeared on the show to promote their joint feature film venture, “Stop, Look, and Laugh” in late 1959.
Winchell’s most successful TV show was Winchell-Mahoney Time (1965–1968), a children’s show written by his then wife, actress Nina Russel. Winchell played several onscreen characters, including Knucklehead Smiff’s father, Bonehead Smiff. He also played himself as friend and adult advisor to Mahoney and Smiff.
Winchell developed over 30 patents in his lifetime. He invented an artificial heart with the assistance of Dr. Henry Heimlich, the inventor of the Heimlich Maneuver, and held the first patent for such a device. The University of Utah developed a similar apparatus around the same time, but when they tried to patent it, Winchell’s heart was cited as prior art. The university requested that Winchell donate the heart to the University of Utah, which he did.
Winchell died on June 24, 2005, of natural causes, at his home in Los Angeles California. He was 82 years old.