Jonathan Winters, Comedian, Dead at Age 87

Posted by at 3:10 pm on April 12, 2013

jONATHAN wINTERSJonathan Winters, the rubber-faced comedian whose unscripted flights of fancy inspired a generation of improvisational comics, and who kept television audiences in stitches with Main Street characters like Maude Frickert, a sweet-seeming grandmother with a barbed tongue and a roving eye, died on Thursday at his home in Montecito, Calif. He was 87.

Mr. Winters, burst onto the comedy scene in the late 1950s and instantly made his mark as one of the funniest, least definable comics in a rising generation that included Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman and Bob Newhart.

Mr. Winters was at his best when winging it, confounding television hosts and luckless straight men with his rapid-fire delivery of bizarre observations uttered by characters like Elwood P. Suggins, a Midwestern Everyman, or one-off creations like the woodland sprite who bounded onto Jack Paar’s late-night show and simperingly proclaimed: “I’m the voice of spring. I bring you little goodies from the forest.”

Jonathan Harshman Winters was born on Nov. 11, 1925, in Dayton, Ohio, where his alcoholic father (“a hip Willy Loman,” according to Mr. Winters) worked as an investment broker and his grandfather, a frustrated comedian, owned the Winters National Bank.

“Mother and dad didn’t understand me; I didn’t understand them,” he told Jim Lehrer on “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” in 1999. “So consequently it was a strange kind of arrangement.” Alone in his room, he would create characters and interview himself.

In his stand-up act, Mr. Winters initially relied heavily on sound effects — a cracking whip, a creaking door, a hovering U.F.O. — which he used to spice up his re-enactments of horror films, war films and westerns. Gradually he developed a gallery of characters, which expanded when he had his own television shows, beginning with the 15-minute “Jonathan Winters Show,” which ran from 1956 to 1957. He was later seen in a series of specials for NBC in the early 1960s; on an hourlong CBS variety series, “The Jonathan Winters Show,” from 1967 to 1969; and on “The Wacky World of Jonathan Winters,” in syndication, from 1972 to 1974.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Mr. Winters was a frequent guest on “The Andy Williams Show,” “The Tonight Show” and “Hollywood Squares.” He played Robin Williams’s extraterrestrial baby son, Mearth, on the final season of “Mork & Mindy,” and he kept busy with voice-over work in animated television series and films. He also published a book of his cartoons, “Mouse Breath, Conformity, and Other Social Ills,” and a collection of whimsical stories, “Winters’ Tales.”

His death was announced on his Web site, JonathanWinters.com.

 

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