Jonathan Winters, who died on 11 April at the age of 87, was a cherub-faced comedian whose breakneck improvisations and misfit characters inspired the likes of Robin Williams and Jim Carrey. Born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1925, Winters was a pioneer of improvisational stand-up, with a gift for mimicry, a repertoire 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.
“He was just a great friend and I was very lucky to be able to work with him for all the years I did,” said Joe Petro, an artist and print maker who collaborated with Winters for decades on numerous art projects. “We’ve lost a giant and we’re really going to miss him.”
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, UN diplomat, bullfighter, delusional psychiatric patient, British headmaster and Bing Crosby’s golf club.
“As a kid, I always wanted to be lots of things,” Winters said in 1988. “I was a Walter Mitty type. I wanted to be in the French Foreign Legion, a detective, a doctor, a test pilot with a scarf, a fisherman who hauled in a tremendous marlin after a 12-hour fight.”
His humour was most often 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, with his free-for-all brand of humour, 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 Robin Williams 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. “The best stuff was before the cameras were on, when he was open and free to create,” Williams recalled. “Jonathan would just blow the doors off.”
Winters made TV history in 1956, when RCA broadcast the first public demonstration of colour videotape on his show. He quickly realised the possibilities, using video technology to appear as two characters, bantering back and forth, seemingly in the studio at the same time.
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 another for his Crank Calls comedy album in 1996.
Winters was sought out in later years for his changeling voice, and he contributed to numerous cartoons and animated films. He played three characters in the The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle movie in 2000 and he is 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.