Friday, April 12, 2013

Jonathan Winters

 "I couldn't wait for success, so I went ahead without it" 
- Jonathan Winters

We lost Jonathan Winters yesterday of natural causes. Jonathan Harshman Winters III was born on November 11, 1925 in Dayton, Ohio. He was the son of Alice Kilgore, a radio personality, and Jonathan Harshman Winters II, an investment broker. He was a descendant of Valentine Winters, founder of the Winters National Bank in Dayton, Ohio (now part of JPMorgan Chase).

During his senior year of high school, Winters quit and joined the United States Marine Corps and served two and a half years in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Upon his return he attended Kenyon College. He later studied cartooning at Dayton Art Institute, where he met Eileen Schauder, whom he married in 1948.

He began comedy routines and acting while studying at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. He was also a local radio personality on WING (mornings, 6 to 8) in Dayton, Ohio and at WIZE in Springfield, Ohio. He performed as Johnny Winters on WBNS-TV in Columbus, Ohio for two and a half years, quitting the station in 1953 when they refused him a $5.00 raise. After promising his wife that he would return to Dayton if he did not make it in a year, and with $56.46 in his pocket, he moved to New York City, staying with friends in Greenwich Village. After obtaining Martin Goodman as his agent, he began stand-up routines in various New York nightclubs. His big break occurred (with the revised name of Jonathan) when he worked for Alistair Cooke on the CBS Sunday morning show Omnibus. In 1957, he performed in the first color television show, a 15-minute routine sponsored by Tums.

Winters recorded many classic comedy albums for the Verve Records label, starting in 1960. Probably the best-known of his characters from this period is Maude Frickert, the seemingly sweet old lady with the barbed tongue. He was a favorite of Jack Paar and appeared frequently on his television programs, even going so far as to impersonate then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy over the phone as a prank on Paar. In addition, he would often appear on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, usually in the guise of some character. Carson often did not know what Winters had planned and usually had to tease out the character's back story during a pretend interview. Carson invented a character called "Aunt Blabby" that was an impression of Maude Frickert.

Winters appeared in nearly 50 movies and several television shows, including particularly notable roles in the film It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and in the dual roles of Henry Glenworthy and his dark, scheming brother, the Rev. Wilbur Glenworthy, in the film adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One. Fellow comedians who starred with him in Mad World, such as Arnold Stang, claimed that in the long periods while they waited between scenes, Winters would entertain them for hours in their trailer by becoming any character that they would suggest to him. He also appeared in Viva Max! (1970) and The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966).

He appeared as a regular (along with Woody Allen and Jo Anne Worley) on the Saturday morning children's television program Hot Dog in the early seventies. He also had a CBS nighttime show from 1967 to 1969, and had his own show, The Wacky World of Jonathan Winters during 1972–74. Winters did dramatic work in the The Twilight Zone episode "A Game of Pool" (episode #3.5, October 13, 1961). He recorded Ogden Nash's The Carnival of the Animals poems to Camille Saint-Saëns' classical opus. He appeared on ABC's The American Sportsman, hosted by Grits Gresham, who took celebrities on hunting, fishing, and shooting trips to exotic places around the world. He appeared regularly as a panelist on The Hollywood Squares and made many very memorable appearances on both The Dean Martin Show and The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast.

In the fourth and last season of the sci-fi-based TV comedy Mork & Mindy, Jonathan Winters (one of Robin Williams' idols) was brought in as Mork & Mindy's child, Mearth. Due to the different Orkan physiology, Mork laid an egg, which grew and hatched into the much older Winters. It had been previously explained that Orkans aged "backwards," thus explaining Mearth's appearance and that of his teacher, Miss Geezba (portrayed by then-11-year-old actress Louanne Sirota). Mork's infant son Mearth in Mork & Mindy was created in hopes of improving ratings and as an attempt to capitalize on Williams' comedic talents. Winters had previously guest-starred in Season 3, Episode 18 as Dave McConnell, Mindy's uncle. However, after multiple scheduling and cast changes, Mork & Mindy's 4th season was already pretty low in the ratings and ended up being the show's last season.
He was a regular on Hee Haw during the 1983–84 season. Shortly after this, in 1987, Winters was featured in NFL Films' The NFL TV Follies. He was the voice of Grandpa Smurf from 1986–1990 on the television series The Smurfs. Jonathan Winters did voices on Pound Puppies, Yogi's Treasure Hunt and Animaniacs.

In 1991 and 1992, he was on Davis Rules, a sitcom that lasted two seasons (25 episodes). He played Gunny Davis, an eccentric grandfather who was helping raise his grandchildren after his son lost his wife. In addition to his live action roles, he was also a guest star on The New Scooby-Doo Movies (in an episode in which the Scooby Gang was looking forward to his promised performance as Maude Frickert) and the narrator in Frosty Returns. Winters also provided the voice for the thief in Arabian Knight.

In 1994, he appeared in a cameo as a fired factory worker in The Flintstones, and, in an interesting role reversal, as the serious minded, and secular, police chief uncle of Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin) in The Shadow.
From 1959 to 1964, Winters' voice could be heard in a series of popular television commercials for Utica Club beer. In the ads, he provided the voices of talking beer steins, named "Shultz and Dooley." Later, he became a spokesman for Hefty brand trash bags, for whom he appeared as a dapper garbageman known for collecting "gahr-bahj," as well as Maude Frickert and other characters.

In 1999, Winters was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. He lived near Santa Barbara, California, and was often seen browsing and hamming for the crowd at the antique show on the Ventura County fairgrounds. He often entertained the tellers and other workers whenever he visited his local bank to make a deposit or withdrawal. He spent his time painting, and had had many gallery showings and had been presented in one-man shows of his art. In 1987, he published Winters' Tales: Stories and Observations for the Unusual.

In 2008, Winters was presented with a TV Land Award by Robin Williams. Winters provided the voice of Papa Smurf in the live-action Smurfs movie, released in 2011 and was tapped to reprise the role in the 2013 release of The Smurfs 2.

In his interview with the Archive of American Television Winters reported that he suffered a nervous breakdown and spent eight months in a private mental hospital for a nervous breakdown in 1959 and again in 1961. Although he was not given a diagnosis while in the hospital, he was later diagnosed with manic depression. The comedian referred to this incident obliquely in his stand-up act, most famously on his 1960 comedy album The Wonderful World of Jonathan Winters. During his classic "flying saucer" routine, Winters casually mentions that if he wasn't careful, the authorities might put him back in the "zoo", referring to the institution. Quote Jonathan Winters, "Nothing is impossible. Some things are just less likely than others".

Good Night Mr. Winters

Stay Tuned

Tony Figueroa
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