LOS ANGELES – Jonathan Winters, the cherub-faced comedian whose breakneck improvisations and misfit characters inspired the likes of Robin Williams and Jim Carrey, has died. He was 87.
The Ohio native died of natural causes Thursday evening at his Montecito home. Winters 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 used 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.
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.
A devotee of Groucho Marx, and Laurel and Hardy, Winters and his free-for-all brand of humor inspired Johnny Carson, Billy Crystal, Tracey Ullman and Lily Tomlin, among many others. But Williams and Carrey are his best-known followers.
“First he was my idol, then he was my mentor and amazing friend. I’ll miss him huge. He was my Comedy Buddha. Long live the Buddha,” Williams said Friday.
Williams helped introduce Winters to 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.”
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 for his work on “The Little Prince” album in 1975 and his “Crank Calls” comedy album in 1996.
Winters received the Kennedy Center’s second Mark Twain Prize for Humor in 1999, a year after Richard Pryor.
In later years, he was sought out for his many voices, and he contributed to numerous cartoons and animated films. 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.
Winters made television history in 1966 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, he spent a lot of time entertaining himself. Winters, who battled alcoholism in his younger years, described his father as an alcoholic. But he found a comedic mentor in his mother, radio personality Alice Bahman.
Winters joined the Marines at 17 and served two years in the South Pacific. He returned to study at the Dayton Art Institute. At one point, he won a talent contest by doing impressions of movie stars.
After stints as a radio disc jockey and TV host in Ohio from 1950 to 1953, he left for New York, where he found early work doing impressions of John Wayne, Cary Grant, Marx and James Cagney, among others.
Appearances on Paar’s show and others followed, and Winters soon had a following. Before long, he was struggling with depression and drinking. He was hospitalized for eight months in the early 1960s. 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.”
Roles in other movies followed, as did TV shows, including his own.