Funny Man Jonathan Winters Dies

Apr 12, 2013
Originally published on April 12, 2013 5:20 pm

Jonathan Winters, known to one generation for his 1960s comedy albums, frequent Tonight Show with Johnny Carson appearances and comic movie characters, and to another generation as Robin Williams' baby on Mork & Mindy, has died. The news is coming from The Associated Press, TMZ, the NPR Arts Desk and other news outlets.

Winters was 87. TMZ says he died Thursday night "of natural causes in Montecito, Calif. ... surrounded by friends and family.

In 2011, Winters looked back on his lifetime of laughs for Weekend Edition Saturday. He told the show that he didn't tell jokes:

"I have always classified [myself] as an actor/comedian, a humorist. ... I started out as an artist and what I do is verbal paintings. I paint a picture. Hopefully you'll see the characters and what they're doing and what they're saying."

His recent work included being the voice of Papa Smurf in 2011's The Smurfs. Winters' IMDB bio is here.

Winters was the second person honored (in 1999) with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. His bio page on The Kennedy Center website says:

"In 1953, Jonathan headed for New York for the ;big time' with $56.46 in his pocket. As a performer at Manhattan's Blue Angel nightclub, his reputation as a comic began to grow. Gary Moore, who was substituting for Arthur Godfrey on the TV Show ,Talent Scouts, presented Jonathan on the show. Then came the Jack Paar Show, The Steve Allen Show, and The Tonight Show, where Jonathan was able to demonstrate his comic genius and he became a top name in American Comedy."

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The country has lost one of its most imaginative and influential comedians. Jonathan Winters died yesterday, at the age of 87.


Winters had a lovable, hang-dog face, and a sense of play to rival the most precocious 2-year-old. Give Jonathan Winters a prop - even just a stick, as Jack Paar did on his TV show in 1964...


JACK PAAR: Do something with the stick. I want you to do a routine with the stick. Give them anything.

CORNISH: And in seconds, he'd have a whip, a yardstick, a violin, a sword - and a character to go with each.


JONATHAN WINTERS: Send in those big cats... (tapping stick) children, I want you to pay attention now... I should like to play for you now ... (speaking foreign language)...

BLOCK: Jonathan Winters didn't do jokes; he did characters, whole galleries of them - effeminate dress designer Lance Lovegard; the world's oldest hula dancer, Princess Leilani-nani; and this pet store owner.


WINTERS: (As character) I can give you that kangaroo over there for ten and a half. Come all the way from Australia; most of them do. I got him as far as Muncie, and he fell off a flat car and broke his tail. Now, you know, most of them sit back there on their tails, like this. But this one, you've got to lean against something.

CORNISH: With that voice came spot-on facial impressions. Winter's unpredictability was both remarkable and novel, years before Robin Williams and Jim Carey took manic mainstream. Again, here's Jack Paar.


PAAR: If Jonathan Winters is ever accused of anything, he's got the perfect alibi. He was someone else at the time.


PAAR: When I first saw him before the show, he was still trying to decide whether he'd - to be a drunken Eskimo, the queen of the Vikings, or a door knob.

CORNISH: Jonathan Winters did not have an easy life. He suffered a mental breakdown onstage in 1959, and spent time in a psychiatric hospital; turning down shock treatment when doctors told him it would erase some of the pain he was feeling, as he told NPR's Pat Dowell.


WINTERS: I need that pain - whatever it is - to call upon it, from time to time.

BLOCK: That's comedian Jonathan Winters. He died yesterday at his home in California. He was 87. A Marine Corps veteran, he's expected to have his ashes scattered at sea.


WINTERS: I did a thing that a lot of us probably would like to do - maybe a few of us don't, I don't know. I'll just have to ask you. Did you ever undress in front of a dog?


(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.