Comedian Jonathan Winters, whose breakneck improvisations and misfit characters inspired the likes of Robin Williams and Jim Carrey, has died at the age of 87.
Jonathan Winters, an Ohio native, died Thursday evening at his Montecito, California, home of natural causes, said Joe Petro III, a longtime friend.
The stand-up comedy legend was surrounded by family and friends.
“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 printmaker who collaborated with Jonathan Winters for decades on numerous art projects.
“We’ve lost a giant and we’re really going to miss him.”
Jonathan 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.
“Beyond funny, he invented a new category of comedic genius,” comedian Albert Brooks tweeted Friday.
On Jack Paar’s television show in 1964, Jonatha 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 Jonathan Winters knew growing up in Ohio.
A devotee of Groucho Marx and Laurel and Hardy, Jonatha Winters and his free-for-all brand of humor inspired Johnny Carson, Billy Crystal, Tracey Ullman and Lily Tomlin, among many others. But Robin Williams and Jim Carrey are his best-known followers.
Johnny Carson in particular lifted Jonatha Winters’ Maude Frickert character almost intact for the long-running Aunt Blabby character he portrayed on The Tonight Show.
Jonathan 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.
The comedian 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. He also won the Kennedy Center’s second Mark Twain Prize for Humor in 1999, a year after Richard Pryor.
Jonathan 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 Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle movie in 2000.
The IMDb 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.
Jonathan Winters had made television history in 1956, when RCA broadcast the first public demonstration of color videotape on The Jonathan Winters Show.
Jonathan Winters was born November 11, 1925, in Dayton, Ohio. Growing up during the Depression as an only child whose parents divorced when he was 7, he spent a lot of time entertaining himself.
The comedian, 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.
Jonathan 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.
Jonathan Winters’ wife, Eileen, died in 2009 and he is survived by two children, Lucinda Winters and Jay Winters.