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 friend. He 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.
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 many others. But Williams and Carrey are his best-known followers.
Carson in particular lifted Winters’ Maude Frickert character almost intact for the long-running Aunt Blabby character he portrayed on “The Tonight Show.”
It was Williams, meanwhile, who helped introduce Winters 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.
Winters’ only Emmy was for best-supporting actor for playing Randy Quaid’s father in the sitcom “Davis Rules” (1991). He was nominated again in 2003 as outstanding guest actor in a comedy series for an appearance on “Life With Bonnie.”
He also won two Grammys: One for his work on “The Little Prince” album in 1975 and nother for his “Crank Calls” comedy album in 1996. He also won the Kennedy Center’s second Mark Twain Prize for Humor in 1999, a year after Richard Pryor.
Winters was sought out in later years for his changeling voice, and he contributed to numerous cartoons and animated films. Fittingly, he played three characters in the “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle” movie in 2000.
The Internet Movie Database website credits him as the voice of Papa in the forthcoming “The Smurfs 2″ film. He continued to work almost to the end of his life, and to influence new generations of comics.
Winters had made television history in 1956, when RCA broadcast the first public demonstration of color videotape on “The Jonathan Winters Show.”
The comedian quickly realized the possibilities, author David Hajdu wrote in The New York Times in 2006. He soon used video technology “to appear as two characters, bantering back and forth, seemingly in the studio at the same time. You could say he invented the video stunt.”
Winters was born Nov. 11, 1925, in Dayton, Ohio. Growing up during the Depression as an only child whose parents divorced when he was 7, Winters spent a lot of time entertaining himself.
Winters, who himself battled alcoholism in his younger years, described his father as an alcoholic. But he found a comedic mentor in his mother, radio personality Alice Bahman.
Winters joined the Marines at 17 and served two years in the South Pacific. He returned to study at the Dayton Art Institute, helping him develop keen observational skills. At one point, he won a talent contest (and the first prize of a watch) by doing impressions of movie stars.
After stints as a radio disc jockey and TV host in Ohio from 1950-53, he left for New York, where he found early work doing impressions of John Wayne, Cary Grant, Marx and James Cagney, among others.
One night after a show, an older man sweeping up told him he wasn’t breaking any new ground by mimicking the rich or famous.
Two days later, he cooked up one of his most famous characters: the hard-drinking, dirty old woman Maude Frickert, modeled in part on his own mother and an aunt.
Appearances on Paar’s show and others followed and Winters soon had a following. And before long, he was struggling with depression and drinking.
Winters was hospitalized for eight months in the early 1960s. It’s a topic he rarely addressed and never dwelled on.
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.”
Roles in other movies followed, as did TV shows, including his own.
While show business kept Winters busy, the former art school student was also a painter and writer.
Among his books is a collection of short stories called “Winters’ Tales” (1987).
Winters’ wife, Eileen, died in 2009. He is survived by two children, Lucinda Winters and Jay Winters.
Associated Press Writers David Zelio and Robert Jablon contributed to this story.