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

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

"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, 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 about 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.

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