Jonathan Winters, groundbreaking comic who influenced generations, dead at 87

  • Article by: JOHN ROGERS , Associated Press
  • Updated: April 13, 2013 - 8:08 AM

LOS ANGELES - 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, Calif., 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 sitcom "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.

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.

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