“Jonathan Winters [site], once described by Tonight Show host Jack Paar as ‘pound for pound, the funniest man alive’ and a comedian whose freeform work with multiple voices and personalities presaged the antics of comics such as Robin Williams, died of natural causes Thursday in Montecito, Calif. at 87,” reports Carmel Dagan for Variety.
“Mr. Winters, a rotund man whose face had a melancholy basset-hound expression in repose, burst onto the comedy scene in the late 1950s and instantly made his mark as one of the funniest, least definable comics in a rising generation that included Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman and Bob Newhart,” writes William Grimes in the New York Times. “A one-man sketch factory, Mr. Winters could re-enact Hollywood movies, complete with sound effects, or create sublime comic nonsense with simple props like a pen-and-pencil set…. But a successful television series eluded him, as did a Hollywood career, despite memorable performances in films like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, The Loved One and The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming.”
“His colorful stable of recurring characters included redneck Elwood P. Suggins and big kid Chester Honneyhugger, but perhaps his best-known was gray-haired Maude Frickert, the swinging granny,” notes Dennis McLellan in the Los Angeles Times. “Winters, who performed Maude in drag, described her a cross between Whistler’s Mother and Norman Bates’ mother.”
For the Mercury News, George Kelly gathers tweets and clips. Lots of them. Let’s go with this one, via Jesse David Fox at Vulture: “Below watch a famous clip from 1964 where Paar gives Winters a stick and Winters does four brilliantly funny minutes with it, building scene after scene.”
Updates, 4/13: “Winters was a funny, funny comedian,” writes Time‘s James Poniewozik. “But key to that was that he was also a funny, funny actor. (Actually, an actor, period; among his credits was a menacing turn in the 1961 Twilight Zone episode A Game of Pool with Jack Klugman.) He helped establish the idea, now common to comedy fans, that being a humorist was not just about telling jokes but inhabiting characters.”
“In 1956, Winters was given his own TV series, The Jonathan Winters Show, which ran for six 15-minute episodes in 1956 and 1957,” notes Phil Dyess-Nugent at the AV Club. “He also recorded a series of comedy albums, starting with 1960’s The Wonderful World of Jonathan Winters. Even at a time when such performers as Lenny Bruce, Nichols and May, and the improv-revue artists of Second City were redefining the possibilities in live comedy, Winters stood out as an unclassifiable original. In some ways, this was a problem for anyone who hoped to use him in a movie or TV show: Although he appeared in several acting roles over the years, the only way to fully tap his talent seemed to be to just point a camera or microphone at him and let him take off. This was not a reassuring way to do business, which explains why, for all Winters’ popularity and support from his colleagues, TV networks were reluctant to entrust him with more than 15 minutes of air time.”
Listening. Marc Maron interviewed Winters in May 2011.
Update, 4/16: A tribute in the New York Times from Robin Williams: “Mort Sahl said Jonathan was seen as a great improviser, but to him he was just being himself. He was a rebel without a pause, whether he was portraying the WASP who couldn’t get a decent martini in Mombasa or the cowboy who couldn’t ride a horse and backed out of frame. Jonathan’s wife, Eileen, maybe had the best quote. She said that Jonathan went through his terrible 2’s but that they lasted 20 years…. Jonathan’s improvs on Mork & Mindy were legendary. People on the Paramount lot would pack the soundstage on the nights we filmed him. He once did a World War I parody in which he portrayed upper-class English generals, Cockney infantrymen, a Scottish sergeant no one could understand and a Zulu who was in the wrong war. The bit went on so long that all three cameras ran out of film. Sometimes I would join in, but I felt like a kazoo player sitting in with Coltrane.”
Update, 5/11: “I remember once mentioning the name Jonathan Winters to Groucho Marx. The reply: ‘There’s a giant talent.’ Dick Cavett has a slew of stories to tell in the New York Times.