Winchell got his start in the way that millions of kids dreamed of: he answered an ad for a ventriloquism kit from the back of a magazine. He did much more than most kids his age. He asked his art teacher to create a dummy, and Jerry Mahoney was born. Winchell and Mahoney practiced and managed to win first prize in the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, and turned professions when he was 14.
When TV came along, Winchell took Mahoney and a second dummy, Knucklehead Smiff, and became a TV hit. The two were similar to Edgar Bergen’s Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, though not as edgy. Mahoney was a wisecracker, and Knucklehead lived up to his name.
Winchell did add one innovation to the art: Both Mahoney and Smiff had working hands – run by an assistant behind him screen. This allowed them to pick up things and gesture, something that ventriloquists normally didn’t do.* Winchell was also ambidextrous, operating Jerry with his left hand and Knucklehead with his right, allowing him to have both on stage at once.
A third character was Ozwald. Strictly speaking, Ozwald was not a ventriloquist act. Winchell would draw eyes and a nose on his chin, wear a mask/headdress that covered his head from the mouth on down, and have the camera turned upside down.** The result was definitely weird.
Winchell was a major success, but by the 60s, ventriloquists were on the way out. Luckily, Winchell was able to adapt his career as a voiceover artists. Hanna-Barbara hired him first and he created characters like Dick Dastardly, Fleegle from The Banana Splits, and Gargamel from The Smurfs. His best known voice role, however was Tigger in Disney’s Winnie the Pooh films.
And, as a sideline, Winchell helped develop an artificial heart. In among everything else, he had gone to Columbia as a premed and worked with Henry Heimlich*** in the 70s in its development, being granted a patent for it. It was never actually used and there’s some debate as to how much Robert Jarvik was influenced by Winchell’s work. Winchell also patented some other inventions, though I’m not sure if any were manufactured.
He also developed a method of cultivating tilapia as part of a humanitarian push to help find new crops in developing worlds.
Winchell died in 2005. His ventriloquism had been overshadowed by his other accomplishments, but he was a major talent in everything he tried.
* I suspect the technique was a big influence on the Muppets like the Swedish Chef.
**He used this technique for a second character, “Mr. Goody-Good.” He often would show the audience how he created the character, putting on the makeup and hat and then telling the camera to turn upside down. Even knowing how it was done didn’t ruin the illusion.
***Yes, that Heimlich.