Jonathan Winters, who made an art out of improvisational comedy and had a successful career for decades with it, died on Thursday of natural causes in his home in Montecito, CA. He was 87.
Winters was like a comedic chameleon, effortlessly able to suss up physical caricatures of all types and stripes almost at will; he could instantaneously become stereotypical figures at once, sometimes at a rapid-fire clip, but he may be best remembered as the character of Maude Frickert to first generations of audiences who discovered him, the at- first-glance innocuous-looking grandmother who then had a tongue that could cut through steel if pressed. Winters positively relished that role and played it with full comedic aplomb as his quick wit solidified the character and audiences howled across the country.
Getting his start in the late 1950s, Winters quickly became a massive presence on television, his rotund figure and poker face style was indeed his wolf in sheep’s clothing comedic stance, and audiences quickly endeared themselves to the man; it led to countless appearances on many talk shows and variety shows afterwards, where he positively stole the show in a sea of heavyweight comics and Hollywood figures of his generation, who were more than happy to give him every ounce of the spotlight when they performed with him.
He also acted in films, again, morphing into characterizations there too, his portrayal of the furniture mover Lennie Pike in the star-studded ensemble cast of Stanley Kramer’s It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was a standout and Winters’ characterization more than held its own among other comedy luminaries in the film, such as Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, and Buddy Hackett. Winters could also slip into dramatic fare, as he appeared on a memorable Twilight Zone episode as well, entitled “A Game of Pool.” Winters also did a memorable series of commercials in the 1970s for Glad Trash Bags, again, taking on various characters to hawk that product.
To later generations growing up in the 1980s, Winters may be best remembered as Mearth, the regressively aging “son” of the alien Mork on the sitcom Mork and Mindy. Watching Winters and the show’s star Robin Williams (another improvisational comedian who owed a lot to Winters’ style) chew up the scenery was a lot of fun. He also did voice over work, and his presence was felt even when age slowed his productivity down a bit, latter day programs like Whose Line is it Anyway also owe huge nods to the style Winters almost pioneered, as an ensemble cast on that program hilariously navigated their way through the comedy by way of ad-libs and off the cuff sketches, something Winters could do in his sleep.
His death leaves a huge void in the comedy pantheon, there’s no doubt of the legend he was and will now be in his passing. For anyone consciously or unconsciously who was able to “wing it” and come up with a sundry amount of characterizations and witticisms and one-liners on stage, in stand up or in sketch comedy, will always give a tip of the hat to the blueprints the great Jonathan Winters laid down originally. It’s hard to say good bye to Winters singularly, it’s almost like saying goodbye to 100 people in a way.
Thanks for all the laughs Jon, thanks to “all of you.”
RIP Jonathan Winters
November 11, 1925 – April 11, 2013