Jonathan Winters, man of many faces, dead at 87
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Jonathan Winters was a crowd all by himself, guaranteeing that his multitude of characters, breakneck improvisations and kinetic clownishness kept generations of fans laughing.
Winters, who died Thursday at age 87 at his Montecito, Calif., home, 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 summoned 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, U.N. diplomat, bullfighter, flutist, delusional psychiatric patient, British headmaster and Bing Crosby's golf club.
It was a typically hilarious display, and, as usual, only limited time could call a halt to his inventiveness.
Winters could leap decades in a split second, flashing from a cooing baby to a cranky old codger in the blink of an eye.
Can you picture what a dog is thinking when it spies its master naked in the shower? Winters could, and did for all to see, molding his face into a pooch's naughty, mocking grin.
"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 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.
Robin Williams and Jim Carrey are his best-known followers. But he was a devotee of Groucho Marx and Laurel and Hardy whose free-for-all brand of humor inspired Johnny Carson, Billy Crystal, Tracey Ullman and Lily Tomlin, among many others.
Carson in particular lifted Winters' Maude Frickert character almost intact for the long-running Aunt Blabby character he portrayed on "The Tonight Show."
It was Williams, meanwhile, who helped introduce Winters 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."