Jonathan Winters, Man of Many Faces, Dead at 87

Winters and his free-for-all brand of humor inspired big name comedians.

By JOHN ROGERS
|  Tuesday, Apr 23, 2013  |  Updated 11:32 AM CDT
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2013 In Memoriam: James Avery

AP

Comedian Jonathan Winters posing at a hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. Winters, whose breakneck improvisations inspired Robin Williams, Jim Carrey and many others, died Thursday, April 11, 2013, at his Montecito, Calif., home of natural causes. He was 87.

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Jonathan Winters was a crowd all by himself, guaranteeing that his multitude of characters, breakneck improvisations and kinetic clownishness kept generations of fans laughing.

Winters, who died Thursday at age 87 at his Montecito, California, home, was a pioneer of improvisational standup comedy, with an exceptional gift for mimicry, a grab bag of eccentric personalities and a bottomless reservoir of creative energy. Facial contortions, sound effects, tall tales — all could be summoned in a matter of seconds to get a laugh.

On Jack Paar's television show in 1964, Winters was handed a foot-long stick and he swiftly became a fisherman, violinist, lion tamer, canoeist, U.N. diplomat, bullfighter, flutist, delusional psychiatric patient, British headmaster and Bing Crosby's golf club.

It was a typically hilarious display, and, as usual, only limited time could call a halt to his inventiveness.

Winters could leap decades in a split second, flashing from a cooing baby to a cranky old codger in the blink of an eye.

Can you picture what a dog is thinking when it spies its master naked in the shower? Winters could, and did for all to see, molding his face into a pooch's naughty, mocking grin.

"As a kid, I always wanted to be lots of things," Winters told U.S. News & World Report in 1988. "I was a Walter Mitty type. I wanted to be in the French Foreign Legion, a detective, a doctor, a test pilot with a scarf, a fisherman who hauled in a tremendous marlin after a 12-hour fight."

The humor most often was based in reality — his characters Maude Frickert and Elwood P. Suggins, for example, were based on people Winters knew growing up in Ohio.

Robin Williams and Jim Carrey are his best-known followers. But he was a devotee of Groucho Marx and Laurel and Hardy whose free-for-all brand of humor inspired Johnny Carson, Billy Crystal, Tracey Ullman and Lily Tomlin, among many others.

Carson in particular lifted Winters' Maude Frickert character almost intact for the long-running Aunt Blabby character he portrayed on "The Tonight Show."

It was Williams, meanwhile, who helped introduce Winters to millions of new fans in 1981 as the son of Williams' goofball alien and his earthling wife in the final season of ABC's "Mork and Mindy."

The two often strayed from the script. Said Williams: "The best stuff was before the cameras were on, when he was open and free to create. ... Jonathan would just blow the doors off."

Williams paid tribute to Winters on his Twitter page Friday.

"First he was my idol, then he was my mentor and amazing friend," he wrote. "I'll miss him huge. He was my Comedy Buddha. Long live the Buddha."

Winters' only Emmy was for best-supporting actor for playing Randy Quaid's father in the TV comedy "Davis Rules" (1991). He was nominated again in 2003 as outstanding guest actor in a comedy series for an appearance on "Life With Bonnie."

He also won two Grammys: One for his work on "The Little Prince" album in 1975 another for his "Crank Calls" comedy album in 1996. He also won the Kennedy Center's second Mark Twain Prize for Humor in 1999, a year after Richard Pryor.

Winters was sought out in later years for his changeling voice and he contributed to numerous cartoons and animated films. Fittingly, he played three characters in the "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" movie in 2000.

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The Internet Movie Database website credits him as the voice of Papa in the forthcoming "The Smurfs 2" film. He continued to work almost to the end of his life, and to influence new generations of comics.

"These voices are always screaming to get out," he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that year. "They follow me around pretty much all day and night."

Winters had made television history in 1956, when RCA broadcast the first public demonstration of color videotape on "The Jonathan Winters Show."

The comedian quickly realized the possibilities, author David Hajdu wrote in The New York Times in 2006. He soon used video technology "to appear as two characters, bantering back and forth, seemingly in the studio at the same time. You could say he invented the video stunt."

Winters was born Nov. 11, 1925, in Dayton, Ohio. Growing up during the Depression as an only child whose parents divorced when he was 7, Winters spent a lot of time entertaining himself.

Winters, who himself battled alcoholism in his earlier years, described his father as an alcoholic. But he found a comedic mentor in his mother, radio personality Alice Bahman.

"She was very fast. Whatever humor I've inherited I'd have to give credit to her," Winters told the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2000.

Winters joined the Marines at 17 and served two years in the South Pacific. He returned to study at the Dayton Art Institute, helping him develop keen observational skills. At one point, he won a talent contest (and the first prize of a watch) by doing impressions of movie stars.

After stints as a radio disc jockey and TV host in Ohio from 1950-53, he left for New York, where he found early work doing impressions of John Wayne, Cary Grant, Groucho Marx and James Cagney, among others.

One night after a show, an older man sweeping up told him he wasn't breaking any new ground by mimicking the rich or famous.

"He said, 'What's the matter with those characters in Ohio? I'll bet there are some far-out dudes that you grew up with back in Ohio,'" Winters told the Orange County Register in 1997.

Two days later, he cooked up one of his most famous characters: the hard-drinking, dirty old woman Maude Frickert, modeled in part on his own mother and an aunt.

Appearances on Paar's show, Andy Williams' variety show, and others followed, and Winters soon had a following. And before long, he was struggling with depression and his drinking.

"I became a robot," Winters told TV critics in 2000. "I almost lost my sense of humor ... I had a breakdown and I turned myself in (to a mental hospital). It's the hardest thing I've ever had to do."

Winters was hospitalized for eight months in the early 1960s. It's a topic he rarely addressed and never dwelled on.

"If you make a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year and you're talking to the blue-collar guy who's a farmer 200 miles south of Topeka, he's looking up and saying, 'That bastard makes (all that money) and he's crying about being a manic depressive?'" Winters said.

When he got out, there was a role as a slow-witted character waiting in the 1963 ensemble film "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."

"I finally opened up and realized I was in charge," Winters told PBS interviewers for 2000's "Jonathan Winters: On the Loose." ''Improvisation is about taking chances, and I was ready to take chances."

While show business kept Winters busy, the former art school student was also a painter and writer.

"I find painting a much slower process than comedy, where you can go a mile a minute verbally and hope to God that some of the people out there understand you," he told U.S. News and World Report in 1988. "I don't paint every day. I'm not that motivated. I don't do anything the same every day. Discipline is tough for a guy who is a rebel."

Among his books is a collection of short stories called "Winters' Tales" (1987).

"I've done for the most part pretty much what I intended — I ended up doing comedy, writing and painting," he told U.S. News. "I've had a ball. And as I get older, I just become an older kid."

Winters' wife, Eileen, died in 2009. He is survived by two children, Lucinda Winters and Jay Winters.

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