Manic comic Jonathan Winters dead at 87

Sat Apr 13, 2013 12:51am EDT
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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Comedian Jonathan Winters, whose manic, improvisational genius never seemed to take a rest, has died at the age of 87 after a more than 50-year career in stand-up comedy, on television and in film.

The burly, moon-faced Winters, a major influence on contemporary comedians like Robin Williams and Steve Martin, died on Thursday of natural causes at his Montecito, California home, surrounded by family and friends, said long time family friend Joe Petro III.

Winters had standout roles in 1960s comedy films "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" and "The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming."

He also made regular appearances on "The Tonight Show" with hosts Jack Paar and then Johnny Carson, "The Andy Williams Show" and his own TV variety shows, "The Jonathan Winters Show" and "The Wacky World of Jonathan Winters," in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Winters' outlandish riffing style and repertoire of madcap characters made him a leading stand-up performer in the late 1950s but the pressure of being on the road led to a mental breakdown in 1959. He spent time in mental hospitals and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Winters was a comedian who rebelled against telling jokes and entertained in a stream-of-consciousness style that could veer into the surreal.

"I love improvisation," he told Reuters in an interview nearly 13 years ago. "You can't blame it on the writers. You can't blame it on direction. You can't blame it on the camera guy. ... It's you. You're on. You've got to do it, and you either sink or swim with what you've got."

Actor Robert Morse, who starred with Winters in the 1965 movie "The Loved One," marveled at the agility with which Winters could transform an ordinary object into an instrument of rapid-fire gags.

"“Most of us see things three-dimensionally," Morse once mused in The New York Times. "“I think Jonny sees things 59-dimensionally. Give me a hairbrush and I see a hairbrush. Give Jonny a hairbrush and it will be a dozen funny things."   Continued...

Comedian Jonathan Winters performs at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada in this September 7, 1971 handout photo from the Las Vegas News Bureau. Winters, the film and TV actor who starred on "Mork and Mindy," died April 11, 2013 at age 87 in Montecito, California of natural causes. REUTERS/Las Vegas News Bureau/Handout