Jonathan Winters dies at 87; comic genius of improvisation
Comic great Jonathan Winters was struggling to make a name for himself in the early 1950s when a man at the nightclub where he was performing offered some life-changing advice.
Winters had a talent for channeling the voices of celebrities like Gary Cooper and Boris Karloff but, the man observed, “All you’re doing is shining their shoes. You’d best think up your own characters.”
That, Winters told TV Guide many years later, was “the best hunk of criticism I ever got.”
With his rubbery, moon-shaped face and pitch-perfect ear for speech patterns, Winters began to unleash a cavalcade of charmingly twisted characters, including a redneck ballplayer, a lisping child and a prissy schoolmarm. He gave many of them names — Elwood P. Suggins, Chester Honeyhugger and, perhaps most beloved, Maude Frickert the swinging granny he performed in drag and described as a cross between Whistler’s and Norman Bates’ mothers.
“If you ask me who are the 25 most funny people I know,” Jack Paar would later quip on the “Tonight” show, “I would say, ‘Here they are: Jonathan Winters.’”
Winters, whose talent for mimicry, sound effects and improvisation made him a comic original and creative godfather to later generations of comedians like Lily Tomlin and Robin Williams, died Thursday at his longtime home in Montecito. He was 87.
“He was one of the great comedy talents in the history of the United States, just brilliant. He could play any character in the world,” said Gary Owens, his close friend who was the announcer on TV’s “Laugh In.”
Tributes flowed from the younger comics he influenced. “First he was my idol, then he was my mentor and amazing friend,” Williams said in a statement Friday. “I’ll miss him huge. He was my Comedy Buddha. Long live the Buddha.”
Jim Carrey said on Twitter that Winters “was the worthy custodian of a sparkling and childish comedic genius. He did God’s work. I was lucky 2 know him.”
Audiences never knew what to expect from Winters, who once walked onto the Paar show wearing a goat-horned wig and clutching a small branch while announcing he was the Voice of Spring. Another time, Paar handed him a stick and away Winters went on a madcap stream of impressions, from a fisherman to a lion tamer to Bing Crosby wielding a golf club.
He punctuated his comedy vignettes with realistically accurate sound effects — a rotary phone being dialed, raindrops, a rushing subway. As he explained, “I try to paint verbal pictures.”
What he didn’t do, he once said, was tell jokes. “The characters,” he explained, “are my jokes.”
His comedy defied categorization.
“Jonathan Winters was probably the most admired — and the most inimitable — of all the comedians of his time,” Gerald Nachman wrote in his 2003 book “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s”
“While he calls himself a satirist, it isn’t traditional satire,” Nachman wrote. “Most satirists mock institutions or events or politicians; Winters mocked the yokels next door with a home (though bizarre) brand of cartoon commentary, sketching and sculpting characters with droll comments that work like balloons above their heads.”
During his more than half-century career, Winters appeared only occasionally in movies, most notably in the 1960s in “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming,” “The Loved One” and, more recently, “The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle.”
TV gave him his greatest exposure and opportunity to “wing it.”
He hosted his own comedy-variety TV shows in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. He also starred in numerous specials.
In the 1981-82 TV season, Winters surfaced — or, more accurately, hatched out of a giant egg — on the sitcom “Mork & Mindy” starring Robin Williams and Pam Dawber.
As Mearth, Mork and Mindy’s middle-aged “infant” offspring, Winters inspired Williams to even greater improvisational heights.
Williams later acknowledged to TV Guide that “Jonathan’s the source for me, the guy that made it all possible. He’s the Smithsonian, all these riffs he stores up. He’s a force of energy. Comedy would be more closed off without him.”
Winters won an Emmy for his often improvised portrayal of an eccentric, retired Marine in the short-lived 1991-92 situation comedy “Davis Rules” and a Grammy for his 1995 comedy album “Crank Calls.” In 1999 he received the Kennedy Center’s second annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
Over the years, he also provided voices for a number of cartoons, including “The Smurfs” and “The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley.”
In one of his most memorable TV commercials, he played the urbane, white-clad spokesperson for Hefty trash bags who famously pronounced garbage “gar-bahj.”
The comedian was also the bestselling author of “Winters’ Tales: Stories and Observations for the Unusual” (1987), and an artist noted for his pen-and ink-drawings and what have been called “surrealist-impressionist-primitive” paintings.
Winters once said that he never grew older; he just became an older child. But he was a wounded “child” — an adult who used to carry in his wallet the Emerson quotation, “Humor is the mistress of sorrow.”
He was born in Dayton, Ohio, on Nov. 11, 1925. His banker father was a heavy drinker who would leave his young son locked in the car while he got drunk in a bar.
Both of his parents have been characterized as selfish, chilly disciplinarians who, he told Newsweek in 1991, filled his childhood with “insecurity, shyness, neuroses and paranoia.”
After his parents divorced when he was 7, Winters lived with his mother and grandmother in Springfield, Ohio, where his quick-witted mother hosted a radio talk show for women.
He learned early on to entertain himself.
His mother and other people would stop by his bedroom, he told the Palm Beach Post in 2000, “and say, ‘What are you doing in there? Who are you talking to?’ I’d say, ‘I’m talking to Lord Telfin. Lord Telfin Salo. He just came in on British Airwaves. Please say hello. We’re having a little tea and biscuits.’”
Sent to boarding school when he got older, he would amuse his friends at the local tavern with his impressions of movie stars. But he remained a loner.
He enlisted in the Marines at 17, in 1943. “I wanted to fight,” he told AARP magazine in 2003. “But mostly, I think, I wanted to get away from my parents.”
After serving in the Pacific, Winters briefly attended Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. But dreaming of becoming a cartoonist, he transferred to the Dayton Art Institute.
There, he met his future wife, Eileen Schauder, who once said, “The first time I heard him talk, my jaw began hanging open. Did he make up all those things all by himself?”
In 1949, she encouraged him to enter an amateur talent show, which was offering the winner a new watch.
Winters did his impression of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, featuring the voices of Cooper, Karloff and others. He not only won the watch but was offered a $65-a-week job as the morning disc jockey at Dayton radio station WING.
In 1950, he moved to Columbus, where he hosted various local TV shows. When he was denied a $5 raise in 1953, he quit and moved to New York City with only $56.46.
Once he began building his act around original characters from his madcap mind, his career began to rise. He became a favorite at nightclubs like the Blue Angel and appeared on Steve Allen’s “Tonight” show and other programs.
But Winters’ growing success came with a price.
He reportedly was drinking up to two quarts of liquor a day before he stopped drinking in his early 30s. He also suffered two nervous breakdowns, the first in 1959 and the second in 1961. The latter episode kept him in a hospital for eight months.
Comedian Shelley Berman once described Winters as “the most ‘on’ comedian I know.”
On movie sets, he was known to ad-lib 30 minutes for the crew at lunch. Ever-playful, he once turned to fellow comic Pat McCormick in a crowded elevator and said, “You don’t think we tied him up too tight?”
About six months ago, Jamie Masada, owner of the Hollywood club Laugh Factory, was with Winters in the parking lot of a Santa Barbara area supermarket when the comedian saw a woman taking her groceries to her car and decided to impersonate a bag carrier.
“The way he did the whole character, it was so funny,” Masada said. “I was laughing so hard, and then the lady gave him the bag to take.”
He was so convincing she offered to tip him. Winters declined.
Winters’ wife died in 2009. He is survived by two children, Jay and Lucinda, and five grandchildren.
McLellan is a former staff writer.
Times staff writers Elaine Woo and Steve Chawkins contributed to this report.
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