About three months ago, I was working in Stockholm, Sweden, when my pal — the comedian and actor Robert Klein — called to tell me that Jonathan Winters had passed away. I knew it was coming. Jon and I had been very close for more than 10 years. Less than a week earlier I called him and he didn’t sound well. When he picked up the phone, I launched into a bit. “Hello, Colonel?” We always called each other in characters prompting the other to jump in and play. Jon loved to play. But that day, he just said “Hey Dan, call me later.” My heart sank. Something was up. The next day I spoke to his daughter Lucinda. After beating booze, mental illness, cancer and the loss of his wife, Jonathan’s heart was giving out. How ironic as Jonathan was all heart. Yes, he had a brilliant mind. His brain made him a genius… but his heart made him my friend.
I had met Jonathan a few times over the years, but never as anything more than another rabid fan. Then in 2002, I had the honor of interviewing him for the TV Academy’s Archive of American Television at his home in Santa Barbara, Calif. At that time I couldn’t bring myself to call him anything but Mr. Winters. I probably laughed too much… hardly the serious professional archivist I should have been… but man he was funny. Just startlingly and brilliantly funny. In that lengthy interview he shared candid recollections of a painful childhood, joyful memories of his career and loving sentiments about his wife and children. It was an intimate conversation that I felt lucky to get to have with him. And afterward, we kept talking. Among other things, Jon spoke fondly of Bonnie Hunt and how he had loved working with her on the series Davis Rules … for which he had won an Emmy. I mentioned that she had a new sitcom. Jon knew about it but hadn’t been in touch with Bonnie since the show had started. On my drive back down to my home in LA, I phoned my friend Norma Safford Vela, who was working on Bonnie’s show as a producer. Norma had co-created Davis Rules and also loved Jon dearly. I asked her if Bonnie would want to have Jon on her new show. By the time, I got home, Bonnie had already called Jon and he was booked to shoot an episode of her show the following week. (Incidentally, he would later receive an Emmy nomination for that appearance.) Jon called to thank me and said that his wife Eileen told him that he should give me 10 percent. Despite my being Jewish, I refused the money. But what I got was so much more valuable. I got a friend. A very special friend.
Jon would often call me and say, “Come up and play with me. There’s no one to play with up here.” Those were magical visits. On one occasion, I asked him about who he was watching that he thought was funny. He told me that he and Eileen had fallen in love with Jimmy Kimmel’s new late night show. As Kimmel is also a close friend of mine, I dialed him up right then and there. Jimmy answered and I quickly handed the phone to Jon. He launched into a bit adopting the persona of an executive at a movie studio saying wanted to pay Jimmy a large sum of money to play “a retarded kid.” Jimmy had no idea who it was until Jonathan broke character, said who he was and voiced his admiration for Jimmy and his show. Jimmy was floored and soon had Jonathan on as a guest. What I didn’t know at the time was that Jimmy’s entire family were all fans of Jon’s. Big fans. Jimmy’s father, Jim, was such a fan in fact, that when Jimmy’s younger brother was born, they decided to name him Jonathan, inspired by the comedian whose work they so loved. I would later take Jim up for a day with Jon at his home. With tears in his eyes, Jim told Jonathan what he meant to him. Jonathan, in turn, invited Jim to try on several of his many military hats for a few fun pictures together.
Through the years, I delighted in introducing Jonathan to a whole new generation of comedians, all of whom would later express not only gratitude, but also the inspiration and transformative nature of getting to spend time with Jonathan. And he was always so pleased when I’d turn up with my funny friends. As I said, Jon loved to play and this was like bringing new kids to his playground. Paul Provenza and I spent a few weeks holed up in a beach house not far from Santa Barbara writing a pilot for Showtime. Feeling the need for inspiration… or procrastination… or both… Paul and I, along with our pal Rick Overton, drove up to Jon’s house and spent a glorious day of play with him. Not long after that, when Paul was putting together his Showtime series The Green Room, one of the first people he wanted on the show was Jon. I helped Paul coordinate getting him booked alongside Klein and Overton, so he’d feel comfortable with playmates he liked and respected. Of course Jon killed. He shined. He had a ball. And during the early stages of my working relationship with Marc Maron at IFC, it came out in conversation that I was friends with Jon. Marc was naturally an admirer and asked me to help get him on his WTF podcast. So the next time I was in Santa Barbara with Jon, we called Marc on his cell phone from Jon’s landline. Not recognizing the number, Marc let it go to voicemail and we left a message where Jon (naturally) adopted a character, not betraying his identity. A few hours later, after I had already left Jon’s house, Marc listened to the message and dubiously returned the call to the mystery number. Eventually Jon revealed himself and Marc excitedly called me after they spoke. Of course Jon did the podcast and it was wonderful. Jon was great and Marc was great with him.
Perhaps the most profound creative experience I got to share with Jon was shortly after his wife lost her long battle with cancer. Jon was having a rough time and I was worried for my friend. I was living in Atlanta at the time but I called him a lot during that period. During one phone conversation, when asked how he was doing, he joked, “Well, I promised my kids I wouldn’t kill myself in the house because it would make it too difficult to sell.” His humor always had more than a touch of darkness, but I was getting concerned. Wanting to find a way to help my friend, I asked him to think of something he always wanted to do. He shared that he had always longed to play Babe Ruth. “That’s it? Done!” Quickly, he and I wrote a short script based on the legendary story when the Babe visited a sick little boy in the hospital and promised to hit a home run for him. I hired a small cast and crew with my own money and we made The Babe and The Kid. It was a great day for everyone involved, but especially for Jonathan, who improvised a lot and delighted in joking with every single person on set even when the cameras weren’t rolling. And at the end of the shoot, he gave everyone a signed baseball as a keepsake. After that, Jon seemed to rebound a bit and to this day, I really believe that our little project made a difference for him. It has been shown at a few film festivals but it’s never been on TV nor have I ever posted it online. Until now.
A few weeks after he died, I had the honor of presiding over his memorial service in Santa Barbara. I spent the weekend at his home, sleeping in his bed. It was a deeply profound experience. One that I will always cherish. The story of that weekend is a whole other essay that I will write and post at some point. But for now, I hope you’ll all enjoy The Babe and The Kid.
Note: The Babe and The Kid was the final onscreen credit for Jonathan Winters — he also would provide voiceover for The Smurfs movie.
Dan Pasternack is now the Vice President of Development and Production for IFC.