Ed Wynn was a Jewish-American comedian who was born Isaiah Edwin Leopold in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His father, who manufactured and sold women's hats, was born in Bohemia-Czechoslovakia. His mother, of Romanian and Turkish ancestry, came from Istanbul, Turkey. Wynn attended Central High School in Philadelphia until age 15. He ran away from home in his teens, worked as a hat salesman and as a utility boy,and eventually adapted his middle name "Edwin" into his new stage name, "Ed Wynn", to save his family the embarrassment of having a lowly comedian as a relative.
Ed Wynn as "Mr. Busybody" 1908
Although many gag writers later provided material for Wynn's performances in radio, television and movies, he was proud to boast that he had written every line he ever spoke during his early career as a stage performer.
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; a 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!"
Wynn reprised his Fire Chief radio character in two movies, Follow the Leader (1930) and The Chief (1933). Near the height of his radio fame (1933) he founded his own short-lived radio network the Amalgamated Broadcasting System, which lasted only five weeks, nearly destroying the comedian. According to radio historian Elizabeth McLeod, the failed venture left Wynn deep in debt, divorced and finally, suffering a nervous breakdown.Performing with his son, Keenan Wynn(1940)
In the 1949-50 season, Ed Wynn hosted one of the first comedy-variety television shows, on CBS, and won an Emmy Award in 1949. Buster Keaton, Lucille Ball, and The Three Stooges all made guest appearances with Wynn. This was the first CBS variety television show to originate in Los Angeles, with programs filmed via kinescope for distribution in the Midwest and East. Wynn was also a rotating host of NBC's Four Star Revuefrom 1950 through 1952.
After the end of Wynn's third television series, The Ed Wynn Show (a short-lived situation comedy on NBC's 1948-49 schedule), his son, actorKeenan Wynn, encouraged him to make a career change rather than retire. The comedian reluctantly began a career as a dramatic actor in television and movies. Father and son appeared in three productions, the first of which was the 1956 Playhouse 90 broadcast of Rod Serling's playRequiem for a Heavyweight. Ed was terrified of straight acting and kept goofing his lines in rehearsal. When the producers wanted to fire him, starJack Palance said he would quit if they fired Ed. (However, unbeknownst to Wynn, supporting player Ned Glass was his secret understudy in case something did happen before air time.) On live broadcast night, Wynn surprised everyone with his pitch-perfect performance, and his quick ad libs to cover his mistakes. A dramatization of what happened during the production was later staged as an April 1960 Westinghouse Desilu Playhouseepisode, "The Man In the Funny Suit", starring both senior and junior Wynns, with key figures involved in the original production also portraying themselves. Ed and his son also worked together in the Jose Ferrer film The Great Man, with Ed again proving his unexpected skills in drama.Wynn (left) and Richard Crenna(right) in People's Magazine 1964
Requiem established Wynn as serious dramatic actor who could easily hold his own with the best. His role in The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) won him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
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 in 1963 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.
He appeared as the Fairy Godfather in Jerry Lewis' Cinderfella. His performance as Paul Beaseley in the 1958 film The Great Man earned him nominations for a "Best Supporting Actor" Golden Globe Award and 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). Six years later he would also appear in the epic motion picture masterpiece The Greatest Story Ever Told.
Wynn provided the voice of the Mad Hatter in Walt Disney's film, Alice in Wonderland, but many baby boomer children remember him most fondly for his brief appearances as The Toymaker alongside Mouseketeer Annette Funicello and Tommy Sands in Walt Disney's Babes in Toyland released in 1961.
Possibly his best-remembered film appearance, though, was as Uncle Albert in Walt Disney's Mary Poppins (1964). His segment involved the eccentric man floating around just beneath the ceiling in uncontrollable mirth, singing "I Love to Laugh" and was one of the film's highlights.
Re-teaming with the Disney team the following year, in That Darn Cat! (1965) featuring Dean Jones and Hayley Mills, Wynn filled out the character of Mr. Hofstedder, the watch jeweler with his bumbling charm. He also had brief roles in The Absent Minded Professor (as the fire chief, in a scene alongside his son Keenan Wynn, who played the film's antagonist) and Son of Flubber (as county agricultural agent A.J. Allen). His final performance, as Rufus in Walt Disney's The Gnome-Mobile was released a few months after his death.
In addition to Disney films, Wynn was also a popular character in the Disneyland production The Golden Horseshoe Review
Wynn died June 19, 1966 in Beverly Hills, California of throat cancer, aged 79. He was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, and his gravestone reads "Dear God, Thanks... Ed Wynn". Red Skelton, who was discovered by Wynn, stated: "His death is the first time he ever made anyone sad.