Jonathan Winters, a man for whom the phrase “a comedians’ comedian” might well have been invented, has died at the age of 87. Winters, who dropped out of school to enlist in the Marines and served in the Pacific during World War II before getting his high school diploma, went on to study art at Kenyon College and the Dayton Art Institute, with plans to become a painter. While his art career was slow to take off, a victory at a local talent show soon landed him work as a morning DJ at a Dayton radio station. As a lonely kid, Winters had learned to amuse himself and others by doing different voices and sound effects, and before long he began populating his radio show with his bizarre characters and conducting interviews with himself.
He lit out for New York in 1952 and found himself in great demand as a guest on talk and variety TV shows. Winters’ improvisational gifts—which enabled him to be spontaneously funny, seemingly on any subject and at whatever length he chose—made him a favorite of the hipper TV hosts of the time, from Steve Allen, and Tonight Show host Jack Paar (and, later, Paar’s successor, Johnny Carson) to the urbane Alistair Cooke, the host of the highbrow arts series Omnibus. In 1956, Winters was given his own TV series, The Jonathan Winters Show, which ran for six 15-minute episodes in 1956 and 1957. He also recorded a series of comedy albums, starting with 1960’s The Wonderful World Of Jonathan Winters.
Even at a time when such performers as Lenny Bruce, Nichols and May, and the improv-revue artists of Second City were redefining the possibilities in live comedy, Winters stood out as an unclassifiable original. In some ways, this was a problem for anyone who hoped to use him in a movie or TV show: Although he appeared in several acting roles over the years, the only way to fully tap his talent seemed to be to just point a camera or microphone at him and let him take off. This was not a reassuring way to do business, which explains why, for all Winters’ popularity and support from his colleagues, TV networks were reluctant to entrust him with more than 15 minutes of air time.
In the book Seriously Funny, Gerald Nachman writes, “Winters shunned the wisecrack, and in TV interviews he seems uneasy, naked without his trunkful of masks to hide behind.” He then sums up, “Winters isn’t a comedian in the usual sense, but he makes people laugh.” Winters’ surreal imagination inspired reverence in the most daring comedians of his time, but—despite the scary unpredictability inherent in putting a man who might say anything on TV—Winters himself came across as a sweet-natured innocent, which made him beloved among viewers who had no use for a Lenny Bruce or a Mort Sahl. Winters eschewed topical material, preferring to play with characters who were mostly small-town types, chatterboxes who talked and talked until it became increasingly clear that they were quietly insane. Among the most famous of these were the grandmotherly yet dirty-minded Maude Frickert and the motor-mouthed bumpkin Elwood P. Suggins. (After doing Maude for decades, Winters` felt obliged to abandon his best-known character, because “She was taking over.” By that point, Carson had more or less reappropriated her anyway as “Aunt Blabby.”)
In 1959, Winters left a date at the San Francisco club the Hungry I, took a cab to Fisherman’s Wharf, boarded a ship and climbed into the rigging. It was reported that he identified himself to police who arrived on the scene as “John Q. from outer space.” Winters was arrested and spent several months in a mental hospital. The incident entered show business folklore—when Lenny Bruce appeared at the same club, his first words to the audience were, “So this is where Jonathan flipped!”—and cemented the idea that Winters was a literal madman, a talented but barely controlled force of nature who might actually be channeling alien transmissions when onstage. It would be years before he was officially diagnosed as suffering from manic depression.
In 1960, Winters made his movie debut of sorts, providing the voice for a pig named Sir Quigley Broken Bottom in the English-language version of a Japanese animated feature called The Magic Land Of Alakazam. A year later, he had his first “straight” onscreen acting role as a sinister pool hustler, back from the dead, in an episode of The Twilight Zone, “A Game Of Pool.” He was also one of the dozens of comic eminences involved in Stanley Kramer’s It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963); played the dual role of the manager of a pet cemetery and his brother, a celebrity minister, in Tony Richardson’s The Loved One (1965); and appeared in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966), Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hug You In The Closet And I’m Feelin’ So Sad (1967), Viva Max (1969), Paul Mazursky’s Moon Over Parador (1988), The Flintstones (1994), and The Shadow (1994).
He also had another TV show, The Jonathan Winters Show, which ran from 1967 to 1969, and another, The Wacky World Of Jonathan Winters, in 1974. In 1970, he served as co-host, along with Woody Allen and Jo Anne Worley, of the educational children’s show Hot Dog. He was also a frequent guest on Dean Martin’s variety show and celebrity roasts, as well as Hee Haw and Hollywood Squares. He also did a great deal of voice work, including a guest appearance as himself on The New Scooby-Doo Movies, one as Maude Frickert on the prime-time Hanna Barbera cartoon sitcom Wait Till Your Father Gets Home, and various characters on The Completely Mental Misdaventures Of Ed Grimley, Gravedale High, and Fish Police. More recently, he provided the voice of Papa Smurf in the 2011 Smurfs movie and its sequel, which will be released later this year.
In 1981, Winters joined the cast of Mork & Mindy as Mearth, giving him the chance to play the “aging-backwards” son of the comedian who spent more time than anyone else publicly declaring himself as Winters’ spiritual son, Robin Williams. Ten years later, another inspired piece of sitcom casting gave him the chance to play Randy Quaid’s father on Davis Rules, a role that earned him his only Emmy.
In later years, Winters published books, including Winters’ Tales: Stories And Observations For The Unusual (1987) and a collection of his cartoons titled Mouse Breath, Conformity, And Other Social Ills (1965), exhibited his painting, and, in 1999, received the Mark Twain Prize for Humor. Although Winters claimed there was nothing malicious in his humor—insisting, “The only chip I’ve ever had [on my shoulder] was with myself”—he did sometimes betray a certain exasperation with his career and the world he lived in. “The standard thing people say,” he told an interviewer in 2000, “is ‘say something funny.’ My answer is, ‘I would if I thought you’d get it.’”