Monday, April 15, 2013

Goodbye Jonathan Winters, thanks for all the laughs

Jonathan Winters, the master of impressions and improvisational comedy who became a staple of late-night television for decades and was a mentor to Robin Williams and an inspiration for performers as varied as Steve Martin, Jim Carrey and Jimmy Kimmel, died April 11 at his home in Montecito, Calif. He was 87. His career spanned more than 60 years.

Mr. Winters received some of the highest honors of his profession and appeared in dozens of movies and television programs in addition to his work on the comedy circuit. His characters included a far-ranging series including: hillbillies, arrogant city slickers, nerve-shattered airline pilots trying to hide their fear, a hungry cat eyeing a mouse, and the oldest living airline stewardess.

“I was fighting for the fact that you could be funny without telling jokes,” he told the New York Times, adding that he thought of himself foremost as a writer and less as a stand-up comedian. He said he idolized writers with a gift for humor and singled out the sophisticated absurdity of James Thurber as an influence.

Two of his most memorable characters — cranky granny Maude Frickert and bumpkin farmer Elwood P. Suggins (“I think eggs 24 hours a day”) — were born from his early television routines.

“Nobody was safe,” said Gerald Nachman, an entertainment journalist and author. “He dug ruthlessly into American archetypes: disgruntled westerners, judgmental Martians, little old ladies, nosy gas station attendants. It was risky, but he did it so well. It became a commentary on Americans, and no other comedian could pull it off.”

Williams once told Playboy why Mr. Winters inspired him. “It was like seeing a guy behind a mask, and you could see that his characters were a great way for him to talk about painful stuff,” he said. “I found out later that they are people he knows — his mother, his aunt. He’s an artist who also paints with words. He paints these people that he sees.”

Onstage and off, Mr. Winters was wildly unpredictable. He struggled with bipolar disorder and nervous breakdowns. One of the most damaging episodes came in 1959, when he was reported to have climbed the mast of a moored historic ship in San Francisco while drunk and naked; he was subsequently transported to a sanatorium.

In Stanley Kramer’s all-star romp “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963), Mr. Winters played a moving-van driver. In the Cold War comedy “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” (1966), he portrayed a less-than-able assistant to a Nantucket police chief.

In “The Loved One” (1965), based on Evelyn Waugh’s dark satire on Southern California, Mr. Winters played two brothers, one of whom schemes to make room in his cemetery by launching corpses into outer space under the slogan “Resurrection Now!”

On television, Mr. Winters’s self-titled variety show aired on NBC from 1956 to 1957 and displayed him in dazzling form as a sketch comic. In one episode, he lampooned newsman Edward R. Murrow, conducting an earnest interview with Napoleon (he played both roles). In other spots, he portrayed Robin Hood and Gen. George Armstrong Custer.

His second show aired on CBS from 1967 to 1969, with Mr. Winters, in his signature characters, bantering with celebrity guests. Among them was Jack Paar, who had helped jump-start Mr. Winters’s career by hosting him on his own show years earlier.

His wife died in 2009. Survivors include two children, Lucinda Winters and Jay Winters; and five grandchildren.

His book of short stories, “Winters’ Tales” (1988), made the bestseller lists, and he received the 1991 Emmy Award for a supporting role as a retired officer and grandfather in the ABC comedy “Davis Rules.”

His recording “Crank(y)cq Calls” won the 1995 Grammy Award for best spoken comedy album. Mr. Winters was the second-ever recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, in 1999; Richard Pryor was the first.

Late in his career, Mr. Winters recorded voice-overs for animated films, including “The Smurfs” movies.

Jonathan Winters was one of the first comedians I can remember as a kid growing up. He made me start laughing the moment I saw him. When asked about all the smut and dirty language many comedians use these days he said that the best laughs came from being naughty not dirty.

Goodbye Mr. Winters. There will never be another like you and I will miss you and Maudy...


Live Long and Prosper...

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