(A version of this article was published for Laughing Place on April 30, 2022.)
You’ve heard his laugh. That unforgettable, whimsical hoot. Ed Wynn – vaudeville comic, radio performer, and comedy legend turned serious actor – has done a little bit of everything. But he is best remembered for his silly costumes and props as well as for that gleeful, wobbly voice and wacky “hoo hoo hoo” laugh.
Isaiah Edwin Leopold was born in Philadelphia, PA in 1886. He was born of Jewish faith, to parents of European ancestry. The performer inside Isaiah didn’t stay in school for very long – he dropped out at age 15 and ran away from home to try his luck on his own. Initially surviving on basic jobs like selling hats and fixing toilets, Isaiah broke into performing while still in his teens. Isaiah’s father disapproved of show business. To spare his parents the embarrassment of having a son who was a low-brow comedian, Isaiah converted his middle name Edwin into a stage name – Ed Wynn.
The Perfect Fool
Wynn’s early career blossomed in vaudeville, where he performed for stage acts such as the Ziegfeld Follies with the likes of W.C. Fields. In 1921, Wynn created his signature character “The Perfect Fool”, for which he developed his famous cartoonish appearance and wobbly, giggling voice. Wynn used upwards of 300 poorly-fitting coats and 800 funny hats in his act, along with a healthy assortment of goofy inventions to drive home his unique brand of visual, physical humor. The Perfect Fool provided the foundation for many of Wynn’s most famous characters, which were the hallmark of his career in show business.
Walt Disney’s Good Luck Charm
Wynn’s Disney movie career includes several memorable roles from unforgettable films. His first Disney role was one of his most iconic, as the voice and personality of the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland.
In a triple-whammy performance, he played three roles in Babes in Toyland – Mr. Toymaker, the Chief of Police, and the Mayor of Toyland. Wynn’s most famous live-action Disney role is the jovial Uncle Albert (who had a hard time controlling his urge to laugh) in Mary Poppins.
Wynn fit in perfectly as the fire chief in The Absent Minded Professor. Wynn also colored Disney’s silver screen with smaller roles in Son of Flubber, That Darn Cat!, and The Gnome Mobile.
Wynn performed occasionally in Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color television show, and in Disneyland’s Golden Horseshoe Revue. Wynn was honored as a caricature in the 1933 Silly Symphony short Mickey’s Gala Premier. For Wynn’s Disney career, it seemed as if everything he touched turned to gold, prompting Walt Disney to refer to him as “our good luck charm.”
A Flair for the Dramatic
Outside of Disney, Wynn is known for his role as Kris Kringle in the 1959 television adaptation of the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street. At the encouragement of his son, Keenan, Wynn began tackling dramatic roles. The two appeared in the 1956 telecast Requiem for a Heavyweight, which landed Ed Wynn rave reviews as a serious actor. Father and son continued to act together in both serious and comedic projects. Wynn’s career in drama peaked when he received a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for 1959’s The Diary of Anne Frank.
From Stage To Screen (and Everywhere In-Between)
Ed Wynn died in June 1966, after a long and illustrious career. According to his granddaughter Hilda Levine, Walt Disney, who died a few months later, assisted at his funeral ceremony. Comedian Red Skelton, who was discovered by Wynn, stated: “His death is the first time he ever made anyone sad.”
Wynn has been honored with three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – for his work in motion pictures, radio, and television. He was honored as a Disney legend in 2013.
Ed Wynn’s son Keenan carried on the family legacy, contributing a few of his own villain roles to the Disney film library, including The Absent-Minded Professor, Son of Flubber, and Herbie Rides Again.
Fun Fact – If Wreck-It-Ralph’s King Candy seems a little familiar to Disney fans, it’s because the character – brilliantly performed by voice acting genius Alan Tudyk – was inspired by Ed Wynn’s performance as the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland.
Ed Wynn was truly a rags-to-riches Hollywood story. Could you imagine leaving home at age 15 to pursue a career in entertainment? What would your first move be? Let us know your thoughts on Ed Wynn – the laughing genius.
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Thanks for learning about another Disney Legend! Follow along here for additional articles in this series. We’ll continue to highlight more of the extraordinary people who have shaped Disney’s storied history.
Ed Wynn Biography – Turner Classic Movies – March 31, 2019