Remembering Paul Winchell (1922-2005)
By Jim Hill
June 27 , 2005
Sometimes I wonder if it’s better not to know too much about your favorite performers.
By that I mean: Over the last day or so, the Web has been awash with stories about Paul Winchell — who sadly passed away this past Friday at the age of 82. And virtually all of these articles have talked about what a fine performer Paul was, his skill as a ventriloquist, the great number of cartoon characters that he voiced over the years, his work on the artificial heart, etc.
And I wish that I could write a story like that today. Something upbeat & positive … But it’s just that … *sigh* … Through conversations that I’ve had with Winchell’s friends over the years as well as my own brief encounters with this Grammy Award winner, I’m afraid that I eventually became aware of the other Paul Winchell. The private man, not the performer, who seemed to be genuinely plagued by some inner demons.
Don’t get me wrong, folks. I’m not telling you this story just to be sensational and/or to tell tales out of school. I just think that it does kind of a disserve to Paul’s memory to stick with the "Reader’s Digest" version of his life. To talk only about his accomplishments. Rather than discuss everything that Winchell eventually overcame in order to achieve all that he did over the course of his career.
To put it bluntly, Paul Winchell had an absolutely miserable childhood. He was afflicted with polio as well as a severe stutter. Not to mention a mother which — if Winchell’s 2004 autobiography, "Winch," is to be believed — was an incredibly cold, cruel person.
To hear Paul tell it, he had a twofold reason for pursuing a career in ventriloquism. He saw show business as a means to escape his mother’s wrath as well as a way to eventually win her approval. Sadly, in spite of everything that Winchell accomplished in his 65+ year career, he could never quite get out from under his abusive childhood. Which is why Paul suffered from extreme self esteem issues.
Which explains why Winchell had a somewhat weird relationship with his fans. In that, were you to try & talk with Paul about any of his performances (Be it his hosting/ventriloquism duties on "Winchell Mahoney Time" and/or his work in film and television) — he’d immediately be dismissive about what he’d done. And you were certain to get the same sort of reaction if you brought up any of the voicework that Winchell did for animated features, shorts and/or TV series over the years.
This sounds kind of strange, I know. But — once you understand that Paul didn’t really like himself all that much — it’s fairly easy to understand why this man might continually denigrate his own work. Why he genuinely seemed surprised when people would go out of their way to tell him how much the old "Paul Winchell — Jerry Mahoney Show" had meant to them when they were kids.
Some of Paul’s pals have suggested to me that this may be the real reason that Winchell did so much inventing, tackled so many different projects over his lifetime. Paul’s lack of self esteem may have caused him to continually seek out recognition & approval in other arenas.
I wish I could tell you that Winchell’s story ended happily. And — in a way — I guess it did. After all, the man did die at home last week in his sleep. Which (I think) is the way that many of us would prefer to go. More importantly, the publication of "Winch" last year reportedly did allow Paul to finally put some of his demons to rest.
But — even so — right to the end, Winchell remain a troubled, complicated man. Full of contradictions.
"What sort of contraditions?," you ask. Well, take — for example — Paul’s own website. Where — if you read Winchell’s on-line biography — you’d find that Paul appeared to be a proud papa when he talked about his daughter, April:
April Winchell is a prominent talk show host and voice over artist, with her own production company.
Which is all well & good. Until you head over to April Winchell’s webpage. Where you’ll find that Ms. Winchell’s most recent entry paints a rather different picture of this father / daughter relationship:
I got a phone call a few minutes ago, telling me that my father passed away yesterday.
A source close to my dad, or at least, closer than I was, decided to tell me himself, instead of letting me find out on the news, which I appreciate. Apparently a decision had been made not to tell me, or my father’s other children.
My father was a very troubled and unhappy man. If there is another place after this one, it is my hope that he now has the peace that eluded him on earth
Rather than continue to talk about Paul’s troubles, I think that I’ll just follow April’s example here and wish that — wherever Winchell is now — that he’s finally at peace. More importantly, hope Paul can finally understand why so many of us loved him and appreciated everything he did over the course of his 67 year career.