Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Paul Winchell and John Fiedler: More Than Just Voices

We need some ethical standards for obituaries. The dead deserve to be treated fairly, and just because they are passive victims doesn’t mean that we should ignore giving them their due.

What is an obituary written for, anyway: to honor the deceased, or to pander to the reader’s ignorance? It would seem that when accomplished human beings die, the news media should have an obligation to encapsulate their careers in obituaries that fairly represent their contributions to our culture, society, history and public welfare. Obviously, the news media feel no such duty.

This week, two performers with long, memorable and distinguished careers died. They were not exactly household names, it’s true. But the media’s solution to that problem was an insult to both Paul Winchell and John Fiedler.

The announcement:

“Two ‘Winnie The Pooh’ Voice Actors Die.”

Let’s seeÂ…what is this like? It’s as if they announced Joe DiMaggio’s death by proclaiming, “‘Mr. Coffee’ Pitchman Dies.” This is like announcing Elizabeth Taylor’s death with “Michael Jackson Friend Dies.” This is like headlining Tom Cruise’s death as “Scientology Promoter Dies,” although he’s certainly asking for it. For both Fiedler and Winchell, doing the voices for Disney’s “Winnie the Pooh” cartoons were late career jobs that introduced small slivers of their considerable talents to younger audiences and undoubtedly created income that the actors appreciated. But in neither case were these minor and relatively anonymous performances high among the achievements of these men.

Fiedler, if the name doesn’t ring a bell, was the small, bald, delicate-featured actor with a trademark soprano voice. If you’re a “Star Trek” fan, he was the human host of the malignant spirit of Jack the Ripper in a memorable episode of the original series. If you’re a Bob Newhart fan, he was one of the odd-ball members of Dr. Bob’s recurring therapy group. If you like Westerns, he was memorable as “Lawyer J. Noble Daggott,” whose reputation as a fierce litigator was repeatedly wielded by Kim Darby as a threat against John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit.” But Fiedler’s shining hour, or perhaps 90 minutes, was as Juror #2 in “Twelve Angry Men,” the seemingly meek office-worker who found the courage to face down a loud-mouth (Jack Warden) and a bully (Lee J. Cobb) to make sure that justice was done. Fiedler, like everyone else in the Reginald Rose classic, made “Twelve Angry Men” an iconic film that finally made it to the Broadway stage last year. As for voicing the character of Piglet, Fiedler didn’t even create the role: that honor went to the similarly high-voiced Sterling Holloway, whose acting career couldn’t hold a candle to Fiedler’s except in length. Fiedler was a versatile and ubiquitous character actor who made his mark on stage, movies and television in both comedy and drama.

Piglet indeed.

But the injustice of consigning Paul Winchell to “Winnie the Pooh voice actor” status is even more outrageous. For one thing, he was a voice virtuoso: Fiedler had one voice, and it was unusual, but Winchell had hundreds, though all had an unmistakable timber that marked them as Winchell creations. If you watched any Saturday morning kids’ shows between 1965 and 2000, you were bound to encounter Winchell, who turned up doing characters, often villains, on everything from the Flintstones and the Jetsons to Scooby-Do and the Banana Splits. And if you watched Saturday morning TV before that, you know that Paul Winchell was the greatest ventriloquist who ever lived, better than Edgar Bergen, better than Sheri Lewis, better than “Senior Wences.”

With his high-tech dummies “Jerry Mahoney” and “Knuckle-head Smith,” Winchell dominated kid’s TV time with the “Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney Show.” You simply could NOT see his lips move, and his routines were fast paced and dazzling. He was a regular guest on all the major variety shows, a major star. Later, he created a hilarious talking hand puppet, the nasty worm “Jelly-Bean,” for a classic Dick Van Dyke Show episode.

But that was just half the Paul Winchell story. The same facility with gadgetry that allowed him to invent ventriloquist dummies that blinked and raised their eyebrows led Paul Winchell to patent over thirty inventions, several in the medical field. One of them was an artificial heart valve that saved the lives of thousands of people.

Let’s see “Tigger” top that.

The fact that most Americans had forgotten about the real accomplishments of Paul Winchell’s life by 2005, if they ever were aware of them at all, is no justification for the press simply reinforcing their ignorance at the expense of Winchell’s memory. Sure, if you read the whole obituary, you would have learned about Jerry Mahoney and the heart valve. But most people just see the headline, and the headline was about the voice of a cartoon, not an inventor, master performer, innovator, and star of his own long-running children’s show, one of the very best that has ever been on television.

News media have a duty to help ensure that people who have made important contributions to our culture get just recognition, and find a place in our memories. John Fiedler and Paul Winchell were such people, and the media failed them miserably. No, there are no rules governing such things. But ethics is about doing the right thing, and minimizing the lives of these two men at the very time their lives should be celebrated is wrong.

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