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 friend. He 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.
“Jonathan Winters was the worthy custodian of a sparkling and childish comedic genius. He did God’s work. I was lucky 2 know him,” Carrey tweeted on Friday.
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, U.N. 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,” he 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 humor 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 humor inspired Johnny Carson, Billy Crystal, Tracey Ullman and Lily Tomlin, among many others. But Williams and Carrey are his best-known followers.
“First he was my idol, then he was my mentor and amazing friend. I’ll miss him huge. He was my Comedy Buddha. Long live the Buddha,” Williams said in a statement Friday.
Williams helped introduce Winters to 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.
“The best stuff was before the cameras were on, when he was open and free to create,” Williams once said. “Jonathan would just blow the doors off.”
Carson, meanwhile, lifted Winters’ Maude Frickert character almost intact for the long-running Aunt Blabby character he portrayed on “The Tonight Show.”
“Beyond funny. He invented a new category of comedic genius,” comedian Albert Brooks tweeted Friday.
In other Twitter posts, Richard Lewis called Winters “the greatest improvisational comedian of all time” and Roseanne Barr added “a genius has vacated this realm.”
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.”
He 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.
“I knew him for 55 years and he’s always been silly, every moment of his life,” veteran announcer Gary Owens, who collaborated with Winters on four comedy albums, recalled warmly Friday in an interview with the AP.
He spoke by phone with him just two days ago, Owens said, and although frail, Winters still broke into a routine in which he was being pecked in the head by a pet peregrine falcon he claimed to keep by his bed. Winters received the Kennedy Center’s second Mark Twain Prize for Humor in 1999, a year after Richard Pryor.
In later years, he was sought out for his changeling voice, and he contributed to numerous cartoons and animated films. He played three characters in the “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle” movie in 2000.
The Internet Movie Database 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.
“No him, no me. No MOST of us, comedy-wise,” comic Patton Oswalt tweeted Friday.
Winters made television history in 1956 when RCA broadcast the first public demonstration of color videotape on “The Jonathan Winters Show.”
The comedian quickly realized the possibilities, author David Hajdu wrote in The New York Times in 2006. He soon used video technology “to appear as two characters, bantering back and forth, seemingly in the studio at the same time. You could say he invented the video stunt.”
Winters was born Nov. 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.
Winters, who 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.
“She was very fast. Whatever humor I’ve inherited I’d have to give credit to her,” he told the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2000. 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. One night after a show, an older man sweeping up told him he wasn’t breaking any new ground by mimicking the rich or famous.
“He said, ‘What’s the matter with those characters in Ohio? I’ll bet there are some far-out dudes that you grew up with back in Ohio,”’ Winters told the Orange County Register in 1997.
Two days later, he cooked up one of his most famous characters: the hard-drinking, dirty old woman Maude Frickert, modeled in part on his own mother and an aunt.
Appearances on Paar’s show and others followed and Winters soon had a following. Before long, he was struggling with depression and drinking.
“I became a robot,” Winters told TV critics in 2000. “I almost lost my sense of humor ... I had a breakdown and I turned myself in (to a mental hospital). It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
Winters was hospitalized for eight months in the early 1960s. It’s a topic he rarely addressed and never dwelled on.
“If you make a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year and you’re talking to the blue-collar guy who’s a farmer 200 miles south of Topeka, he’s looking up and saying, ‘That bastard makes (all that money) and he’s crying about being a manic depressive?”’ Winters said.
When he got out, there was a role as a slow-witted character waiting in the 1963 ensemble film “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”
“I finally opened up and realized I was in charge,” Winters told PBS interviewers for 2000’s “Jonathan Winters: On the Loose.” ‘’Improvisation is about taking chances, and I was ready to take chances.”
Roles in other movies followed, as did TV shows, including his own.
While show business kept Winters busy, the former art school student was also a painter and writer. His paintings and sketches were often filled with humor.
“I find painting a much slower process than comedy, where you can go a mile a minute verbally and hope to God that some of the people out there understand you,” he said in the 1988 U.S. News and World Report interview. “I don’t paint every day. I’m not that motivated. I don’t do anything the same every day. Discipline is tough for a guy who is a rebel.”
Among his books is a collection of short stories called “Winters’ Tales” (1987). “I’ve done for the most part pretty much what I intended — I ended up doing comedy, writing and painting,” he told U.S. News.
“I’ve had a ball. And as I get older, I just become an older kid.”
Winters’ wife, Eileen, died in 2009. He is survived by two children, Lucinda Winters and Jay Winters.