Comedian Jonathan Winters Dead at 87

Jonathan Winters dead at 87

Comedian starred in 'Mork and Mindy'

Jonathan Winters, once described by “Tonight Show” host Jack Paar as “pound for pound, the funniest man alive” and a comedian whose freeform work with multiple voices and personalities presaged the antics of comics such as Robin Williams, died of natural causes Thursday in Montecito, Calif. at 87.

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, he 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.” He appeared in numerous films including “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World” and did extensive voice work on toons including “The Smurfs.”

Born Jonathan Harshman Winters III in Dayton, Ohio, Winters was raised mostly by his divorced mother, a radio personality in Springfield, Ohio, and showed an early gift for mimicry. He served in the Marines in the Pacific during WWII, then attended Kenyon College and later the Dayton Art Institute. He held down a variety of jobs while seeking to become a cartoonist. After winning a talent contest, Winters landed a DJ gig at Dayton radio station WING, and he was soon ad-libbing freely on-air; for several years he hosted some local programs for Columbus TV station WBNS, but in 1953 he headed for New York.

Winters played comedy clubs in Manhattan and did early live TV. In 1954, he was cast as a regular on the NBC comedy-variety series “And Here’s the Show,” and he was a contestant, with many other rising performers, on “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts,” which led to a featured spot in the 1954 Broadway revue “Almanac.”

He also made many appearances on “The NBC Comedy Hour.”

By the late ’50s, Winters was guesting repeatedly on “The Jack Paar Tonight Show” (and later on “The Jack Paar Program”). Alluding to the many characters Winters portrayed in his act, Paar once said, “If you were to ask me the funniest 25 people I’ve ever known, I’d say, ‘Here they are — Jonathan Winters.’”

Winters also recurred on “The Steve Allen Show” and “The Garry Moore Show.”

During the late 1950s, however, Winters suffered at least one emotional breakdown and spent time in a mental hospital. He was later diagnosed with manic depression (now known as bipolar disorder) and medicated appropriately. In his standup routines he made obscure references to his illness and hospitalization. He was one of the first one celebrities to go public with a personal mental illness issue and felt stigmatized as a result. “This is something I’ve never quite shaken,” he once said. “There are bigger stars than me with all kinds of coke problems, sauce problems, guys that are married four, five times. Then they put them in picture after picture. Why should I have to go through my life auditioning and proving I’m sane?”

Whatever the extent or manner of his personal demons, Winters was able to harness them to bring an unprecedented frenetic energy to his work as a comic. He did not tell joke or rattle off punchlines but improvised on any subject. He also channeled his mania into a variety of characters including ribald old lady Maude Frickert, quack psychiatrist Dr. Bellenhoffer, Southern yokel Elwood P. Suggins and brash movie star Lance Lovegard.

During the early 1960s, Winters issued a slew of successful comedy albums: “Down to Earth” (1960), “The Wonderful World of Jonathan Winters” (1960), “Here’s Jonathan” (1961), “Another Day, Another World” (1962), “Humor Seen Through the Eyes of Jonathan Winters” (1962), “Jonathan Winters’ Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963) and “Whistle Stopping With Jonathan Winters” (1964).

In 1961 the comedian exercised his serious side in a famous episode of “The Twilight Zone” called “A Game of Pool,” in which he played a dead pool great resurrected for a game with a player portrayed by Jack Klugman.

Two years later he made his bigscreen debut in the Stanley Kramer comedy “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World,” appearing with an all-star cast of comics including Sid Caesar and Milton Berle.

In 1965 Winters was wasted in Tony Richardson’s surreal satire of the funeral industry “The Loved One,” scripted by Terry Southern based upon Evelyn Waugh’s novel. The next year he appeared in Norman Jewison’s cold war satire “The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming.”

Winters was better served in 1969’s “Viva Max!,” a satire centered around the mythology of the Alamo, in which he played a general more interested in his thriving furniture business.

Meanwhile, sketch variety show “The Jonathan Winters Show” ran for two seasons on CBS in 1967-69 and syndicated comedy variety show “The Wacky World of Jonathan Winters” ran more briefly in the early ’70s; both prominently featured Winters’ characters, including Maude Frickert. He also guested repeatedly on “The Carol Burnett Show,” “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” and, especially, “The Dean Martin Comedy Hour.”

Winters made his last major nightclub appearance in 1972 at the Hilton International in Las Vegas.

In 1976 the comedian penned and hosted the NBC special “Jonathan Winters Presents 200 Years of American Humor.”

Winters’ guesting gig as Mearth on “Mork and Mindy” gave Robin Williams, the star of the show, a chance to work with the comedian who had most influenced his work.

“Jonathan’s the source for me, the guy that made it all possible,” Williams once said. “He’s the Smithsonian, all these riffs he stores up. Just sit back and watch him. He’s a force of energy. Comedy would be more closed off without him.”

In 1985, Winters appeared as Humpty Dumpty in the CBS miniseries version of “Alice in Wonderland.”

During the 1980s Winters began to do a great deal of voicework for animated programs, including “The Smurfs” and NBC’s “The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley,” an adaptation of Martin Short’s character from “Saturday Night Live.”

Winters was a series regular on the 1991-92 sitcom “Davis Rules,” playing Randy Quaid’s eccentric father, and he won the 1991 Emmy for supporting actor in a comedy series.

He guested on ABC sitcom “Life With Bonnie” in 2002 and earned a guest actor in a comedy series Emmy nomination.

Speaking of how he prepares as a comedian, Winters told interviewer Dan Pasternack in 2002, “You’ve got to study people. If you go to the Actors Studio fine; if you take lessons from someone, fine. There are all kinds of workshops and comedy stores and dramatic workshops, etc., but you must be an observer. You must look at everything around you.”

On the other hand, he said on another occasion that in doing comedy, “I’ve always had the most fun when I was improvising.”

Winters continued to do occasional bigscreen work into his mid-80s, appearing in the Paul Mazursky comedy “Moon Over Parador” in 1988, in “The Flintstones” in 1994 and “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle” in 2000. He had a role in “Cattle Call” in 2006 and voiced Papa Smurf in 2011 film “The Smurfs.”

Winters appeared in the PBS documentary series “Make ’Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America” in 2009 and guested on Showtime’s “The Green Room With Paul Provenza” in 2010.

He made more than a dozen comedy recordings in his career. Winters resumed issuing albums in 1988 after a 19-year absence and continued to produce them until 2011, when he released “Final Approach.” He received 11 Grammy nominations for his albums, and his disc “Crank Calls” won the Grammy for spoken comedy album in 1995.

Winters friend Jim B. Smith saved all of his 3,000-plus phone messages from the comedian over the years and published a selection of them in the 1989 book “Jonathan Winters… After the Beep.”

The comedian won the second Mark Twain Prize for Humor, presented by the Kennedy Center, in 1999.

In a tribute at the sixth Annual TV Land Awards in June 2008, Williams presented Jonathan Winters with the TV Land Pioneer Award, which honors performers who have distinguished themselves by pushing the frontiers of the media.

Winters’ wife of 60 years, Eileen, died in 2009.

He is survived by a son and a daughter and five grandchildren.

Share your favorite memory/moment in the comments below.

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  1. Jeff Manishen says:

    For my 60th birthday, I was fortunate enough to see Jonathan on stage with Pete Barbuti in Palm Desert last year. I’d flown down from Toronto for that purpose as he was my comic idol from childhood. He was hilarious, as expected, and I felt honoured to be in his presence. I waited for him by the stage door and he graciously agreed to an autograph and for us to be photographed together. I told him I’d come from Canada just to see him. “Where in Canada?”, he inquired. “Toronto”, I said proudly. “Not far enough”, he quickly responded. A performance, a photo, and autograph and an ad lib-more than I’d have imagined! He’ll be missed by many and never forgotten.

  2. Thom Winford says:

    I had the good fortune of being in a lower Montecito art gallery at the same time Jonathan was there. I will always remember he did a standup comedy routine on some of the paintings hanging on the wall. I had to turn away for the laughter brought tears to my eyes – as it did for the others in the room. What a loss of a truly gifted man.

  3. Phil T. says:

    Appearing with challenger Jack Klugman, Mr. Winters gave an unforgettable performance as billiards champion “Fats” Brown in the Twilight Zone dramatic episode, “A Game of Pool.”

  4. Jonathan Cavendish says:

    At age 13, I hated my name of Jonathan. When I got to junior high school, I learned of Jonathan Winters, and heard his albums. I also saw him on television. For the first time in my 13 years, I liked my first name. He has been with me all my life. I will sorely miss him. I even memorized all of his Comedy albums, and did standup routines using his material in variety shows in school. He was the greatest comedian of all times. I am sorely upset that he is gone. My only wish to my life in meeting a celebrity was to meet Jonathan Winters. That never happened.

  5. James says:

    Funniest guy on TV when I was growing up. I’ll never forget him doing sound effects and commentary as Andy Williams would read a story on the Andy Williams show. Like it was yesturday. R.I.P. Mr. Winters.

  6. Susan S. says:

    So sad…one of my comedic faves!! R.I.P. Jonathan Winters. Genius!!!

  7. Walt says:

    In growing up I don’t think there were more then a hand full comedy actors who could break me up like Jonathan Winters. I will never forget the crazy energy, the wild emprov, he could always have me on the floor
    .He made you see that people didn’t have to be boring. Rest In Peace Jonathan, we will always want one more chuckle out of you.

  8. Jan Bizjak says:

    Great man who taught us to laugh when the world was drowning in tears and blood. Good journey,Jonathan

  9. Charlie says:

    God rest your soul, Jonathan. You provided me with many a chuckle growing up in the 60’s. You did it all without resorting to the cheap tricks so many “comedians” today have to use to get a laugh. When you’re funny, you’re funny. And you were hilarious.

    • William says:

      I agree 100% with you, Charlie. Jonathan Winters was *indeed* a genius. He also didn’t have to be nasty to be funny, like many of today’s “comics.”

      I also remember Jonathan voiced himself and Maude Frickert in a 1972 episode of “Scooby-Doo” called “The Frickert Fracas.” I was only 10 when that first aired, and I was laughing my brains out, especially when he did Maude.

      First it was Annette Funicello earlier this week, and now Jonathan Winters. Two more decent stars have gone to their final reward.

      RIP, Jonathan. You will indeed be missed.

  10. azindn says:

    What a sad, sad day. RIP funny man.

  11. Dave R. says:

    I noticed his body failing him in recent years, but the mind, wit and spirit were always there.

  12. Teresa Campbell says:

    And a generation of laughing people who loved him, too.

  13. Paul says:

    Keep ’em laughing up there, Mr. Winters.

    • mnatividadc says:

      jon winters will continue keep’em laughing up there, I agree 100%. learning to LAUGH at our own mistakes, makes us mature enough/ to not be afraid to take a RISK at anything, calculated, ahead of time with accuracy.

  14. James A. Good says:

    I was saddened to learn of his passing. He evoked an imaginative brand of humor shared with the likes of Danny Kaye and still today by Bob Newhart. My sympathies to his family.

  15. Van Harvey says:

    I am as old as Jonathan Winters was and I have followed his career since his early days on TV. His routines were the funniest I have ever seen–one of the most hilarious was as a chicken on an airplane. And his encounters with Jack Paar were priceless.

  16. rgold02 says:

    So sorry for your loss. RIP Johnathan. Thanks for making me laugh all these years!

  17. Samuel Hillstone says:

    Geez!! This news makes me terribly sad!

    I have to echo Jack Paar’s famous quote about the 25 funniest people. Jonathan Winters was all that, and much, much more.

    My condolences to his family and vast audience of fans and friends.

    The world feels a bit grittier and grim today.

    I’ll go find a copy of, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World” and watch Jonathan take out his rage on the gas station. That ALWAYS cracks me up.

    Go get’um Jonathan!

  18. Frank Caruso says:

    We lost one of the funniest men who ever lived. He will be missed!

  19. Ken Houser says:

    A true comedic genius who the hacks of today won’t make us forget anytime soon!

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