RIP Jonathan Winters (1925-2013)

Jonathan Winters, one of the most inventive and inspired comedians whose career spanned the entire second half of the twentieth century, has died. He was 87.

This is the message on his website today:

“Jonathan Winters¬†passed away of natural causes at his Montecito, California home at 6:45 p.m. PDT on April 11, 2013, surrounded by family and friends. Rest in Peace, Mr. Winters.”

Born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1925, Jonathan Harshman Winters III served in the Pacific with the Marines during WWII. Upon returning to Ohio, he’d meet the love of his life, Eileen, and get a job as a radio disc jockey — that led him and Eileen from Dayton to Columbus, and eventually he set off for New York City in 1953 to try to make it in show business. Winters began making appearances on The Tonight Show in 1956.

Over the years, Winters would make many more appearances in late-night, whether it be with Jack Paar, Johnny Carson or David Letterman. He presided over two editions of The Jonathan Winters Show in primetime¬†— one on NBC in 1956-1957 that followed the nightly news on Tuesdays (which introduced his famous characters “Maude Frickert” and “Elwood P. Suggins,”) and a second longer variety series, on CBS, that ran from 1967-1969.

This is one of the classics, as Jonathan Winters takes a stick from Jack Paar and improvises for four minutes of non-stop genius stream-of-consciousness humor.

Give Jonathan Winters a suggestion and let him run with it.

Sounds a lot like modern improvisational comedy, because it is. But when Winters emerged on our screens and leapt through the cameras into our hearts and funny bones, it felt as if there were no rules; if there were rules, they were made for Winters to break them.

His first big break on the big screen came with a small but memorable role in the all-star 1963 movie,¬†It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Just last summer, Winters attended a special 70mm screening of the film and a Q&A with Carl Reiner, Mickey Rooney and others, moderated by Billy Crystal. Here was Winters in 2012 talking about the film.

And now, let’s watch the scene.

Winters could be counted on as a spokesman for everything from common consumer goods such as Hefty bags or Wendy’s fast-food restaurants, to corporate PSAs. This film Winters made with the Army in the early 1960s on “Food: Atomic Style.”

Another generation got to know and love Jonathan Winters in the 1980s thanks to one of his famous admirers, Robin Williams — Winters played his reverse-aging alien/human child, Mearth, on the ABC sitcom Mork and Mindy.

Winters certainly inspired Williams. That much is abundantly clear watching Williams riff and sometimes channel a classic Winters conceit. But he wasn’t the only one. A generation before critics lauded Larry David for ad-libbing with his peers in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Winters had even more leeway on broadcast network TV.

Winters had such free rein in his 1991-92 sitcom, Davis Rules, that the scripts famously just inserted ellipses into the storyline … Winters is funny here … to allow him to do his thing while interacting with the other actors and actresses.

This 1986 short film shows how Winters still had it 30 years after he first appeared on TV, presenting his work at a “holiday film festival” for David Letterman.

In 1999, the Kennedy Center awarded Jonathan Winters with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. PBS NewsHour produced this report at that time, which allowed greats from Williams to Steve Allen to honor his life and career then, and for Winters to reflect with Jim Lehrer.

He spent his last years up the coast from Hollywood in Santa Barbara (his wife, Eileen, preceded him in death in 2009). Jonathan Winters granted a full interview in 2002 with Dan Pasternack (now the comedy guru at IFC) and the Archive of American Television, in which he tells his life story in his own words…

Dick Van Dyke, now also 87, wrote today on Twitter: “The first time I saw Jonathan Winters perform, I thought I might as well quit the business. Because, I could never be as brilliant.”

Winters ended a 1965 TV special with some words for the viewers about true happiness.

Jonathan Winters was and always will be one of comedy’s superheroes. He will be missed.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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