Comedian Jonathan Winters Dies at 87

Jonathan Winters 1960 - P 2013
Movie Pix/Getty Images

Jonathan Winters 1960 - P 2013

He was perhaps best known as a frequent guest on Johnny Carson’s "Tonight Show" during the 1970s and ’80s.

Jonathan Winters, whose range of comic characters and talent for mimicry vaulted him to stardom, died Thursday of natural causes at his home in Montecito, Calif., a family friend told the Associated Press.

Winters recorded a series of comedy albums, which garnered him one Grammy Award and 10 nominations. Regarded as the father of modern improvisational, character-oriented comedy, he earned an Emmy in 1991 for his supporting role in the Randy Quaid ABC-CBS sitcom Davis Rules, playing a grandfather raising three sons.

Winters received the Kennedy Center’s second Mark Twain honor for humor in 2000. His wide range of characters was highlighted by his portrayal of Maude Frickert, a plump old woman with round glasses and a perverse sense of propriety (Frickert once was the subject of a kooky installment of This Is Your Life in 1971). She was a precursor to Dana Carvey’s Church Lady character on Saturday Night Live.

Winters also greatly influenced Robin Williams, who considered him his mentor; Winters jocularly insisted that the comic refer to him as his "idol." The two worked together on the 1978-82 ABC sitcom Mork & Mindy.

Winters fronted NBC's The Jonathan Winters Show in 1956, another variety show that ran on CBS from 1967-69 and the 1972-74 syndicated The Wacky World of Jonathan Winters.

During the '50s, he was a frequent and popular guest on such variety series as The Garry Moore Show and The Steve Allen Show. He was perhaps best known as a frequent guest on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show during the 1970s and ‘80s. Often, he left Carson bent with laughter at his desk with his inspired riffs. Indeed, with The Mighty Carson Art Players, Carson too emulated Winter’s style, most blatantly with his character Aunt Blabby.

Winters appeared in a number of movies, often in cameos as eccentrics. He gave a gloriously hilarious performance in the dual roles of the Glenworthy brothers in The Loved One (1965), starring alongside an eclectic comic cast that included Liberace, Milton Berle and Robert Morse. He reached his widest movie audience with his wacky performance as the van driver in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963). Other comic turns included his work as the deputy sheriff of a communist-crazed New England town in Norman Jewison’s The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! (1966).

His other movies included Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad (1967), The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (1979), The Shadow (1994) and The Flintstones (1994). He was a regular on Hollywood Squares.

Winters was a talented voice-over artist as well (his early stand-up career featured him doing sound effects). He was best known as Papa Smurf on The Smurfs animated TV show as well as Santa Claus in Santa vs. the Snowman. He revived his role on The Smurfs in the 2011 film version and did the same for the sequel, set for release this year. He also has a part in Big Finish, an upcoming comedy set in a retirement home.

Jonathan Harshman Winters III was born to a banking family on Nov. 11, 1925, in Dayton, Ohio. His father lost his money in the market crash of 1929 and became an alcoholic. Such maladies were to foreshadow Winters’ own bouts with depression. His parents divorced, and his mother remarried and embarked on a radio career.

Winters dropped out of high school to join the Marines, but following his tour in 1946, he completed his high school diploma and entered Kenyon College, later transferring to the Dayton Art Institute. While at the institute, he developed a flair for drawing and became an accomplished cartoonist and a connoisseur of human behavior and foibles.

During the time, he worked several odd jobs -- apricot picking in California, chopping wood in Utah, cooking in Yellowstone. He credited these years of hard knocks with allowing him to observe a wide range of human oddities. These inspirations were the starting points to his comic characters, which he came to refer to as "my little world."

In 1959, Winters suffered a nervous breakdown onstage in San Francisco and spent time in a mental hospital. Two years later, he suffered another collapse before making a courageous return to show business.

A man of energetic talents, Winters also was a talented painter, working in the style of Wassily Kandinsky or Paul Klee. His bizarre sense of humor contributed to him amassing an eclectic collection of knickknacks.