People love to be entertained by movies and music. However, the viewing audience, especially the American viewing audience have a short attention span. So many great actors and comedians are forgotten as soon as they breath their last breathe. That is such the case with Ed Wynn. Wynn went from a vaudeville giant to a lovable character actor in his later years. He deserves to be up there with the great geniuses of vaudeville like WC Fields and Eddie Cantor. People won't really remember his vaudeville work, but they still should be aware of some of his great movie and television roles later in his life.
Born Isaiah Edwin Leopold in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on November 9, 1886, he ran away from home in his teens and eventually adapted his middle name "Edwin" into his new stage name, "Ed Wynn", to save his family the embarrassment of having a low comedian as a relative. In his youth, Wynn worked as an onstage assistant to W. C. Fields. Fields caught him mugging for the audience during his "Pool Room" routine and knocked him unconscious with his cue. Wynn became a headliner in vaudeville in the early-1910s, and was a star of the Ziegfeld Follies starting in 1914. He was best known as a comedian, billed as The Perfect Fool (and starring in a musical revue of that name on Broadway in 1921). Wynn also wrote, directed and produced many shows. He was famous for his silly costumes and props, and he always worked "clean," making his shows suitable for the entire family.
He hosted a popular radio show, The Fire Chief for most of the 1930s, 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. 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!"
By 1930 Wynn was a radio superstar, and he reprised his radio character in two movies, Follow the Leader
(1930) and The Chief
(1933). Near the height of his radio fame he founded his own short-lived radio network, the Amalgamated Broadcasting System, which lasted only five weeks in 1933.
Wynn was offered the title role in MGM's 1939 screen adaptation of The Wizard of Oz
, but he turned down the role, as did his Ziegfeld contemporary W. C. Fields. The part finally went to Frank Morgan. In the late 1940s Ed Wynn hosted one of the first comedy-variety television shows, and won an Emmy Award in 1949. Buster Keaton made guest appearances with Wynn, establishing him in television as well.
After the end of Wynn's television series, his son, actor Keenan Wynn, had encouraged him to make the career change rather than retire. Ed Wynn reluctantly began a career as a dramatic actor in television and movies. The two appeared in two productions: the 1957 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. On live broadcast night, Wynn surprised everyone with his pitch-perfect performance, and his quick ad libs to cover his mistakes. Ed and his son also worked together in the Jose Ferrer film The Great Man,
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
won him an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor in 1959. 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 starred in the episode "Ninety Years Without Slumbering". For the rest of his life, Ed skillfully moved between comic and dramatic roles. He appeared in feature films and anthology television, endearing himself to new generations of fans.
Wynn provided the voice of the Mad Hatter in Walt Disney's film, Alice in Wonderland
and appeared as the Fairy Godfather in Jerry Lewis' Cinderfella
. His performance as Paul Beaseley in the 1958 Jose Ferrer film The Great Mangarnered
him nominations for a "Best Supporting Actor" Golden Globe Award as well as 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). In That Darn Cat!
(1965) he played Mr. Hofstedder, the watch jeweler. One of his best-known performances during later years was Uncle Albert in Mary Poppins
. In addition to Disney films, Wynn was a popular character in the Disneyland production The Golden Horseshoe Review. His last movie was The Gnome-Mobile
(1967) in which he played the character Rufus. His role as the toymaker in "Babes in Toyland" is a classic featuring all of his charisma and comedic talent.
Ed Wynn died June 19, 1966 in Beverly Hills, California of throat cancer, aged 79. He was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. His grave marker is beautiful, and it summed up his life...