Ground­breaker Win­ters in­flu­enced gen­er­a­tions

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT -

LOS AN­GE­LES — 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 fam­ily friend. Petro said Win­ters 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, UN diplo­mat, bull­fighter, flutist, delu­sional psy­chi­atric pa­tient, Bri­tish head­mas­ter and Bing Crosby’s golf club.

“As a kid, I al­ways wanted to be lots of things,” Win­ters told U.S. News & World Report 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.”

The hu­mour 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 hu­mour in­spired Johnny Car­son, Billy Crys­tal, Tracey Ull­man and Lily Tom­lin, among oth­ers. But Wil­liams and Car­rey are his best-known fol­low­ers.

Win­ters, who bat­tled al­co­holism and de­pres­sion for years, was in­tro­duced 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. Said Wil­liams: “The best stuff was be­fore the cam­eras were on, when he was open and free to cre­ate.... Jonathan would just blow the doors off.”

Win­ters’ only Emmy was for best­sup­port­ing 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 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.

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