I don’t know what to make of a world in which I exclaim, “Oh no! Jonathan Winters died!” and most of the people in the office reply:
I’m getting old.
The man was a tortured genius who battled depression and alcoholism. But he was blessed with a boundless imagination. From his obit:
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 Thursday evening at his Montecito, Calif., home of natural causes, said Joe Petro III, a longtime family friend. Petro said Winters died of natural causes and was surrounded by family and friends.
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.
“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.
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 others. But Williams and Carrey are his best-known followers.
Winters, who battled alcoholism and depression for years, was introduced 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.”
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.”
Bless him. Read more.
Meantime if you never thought a man and a stick could be hilarious, check out this classic piece from the Jack Paar show in the early 1960s: