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.”
Steve Martin paid tribute on Twitter on Friday: “Goodbye, Jonathan Winters. You were not only one of the greats, but one of the great greats.”
His characters included Maudie Frickert, the salty old lady with a razor for a tongue, and Elwood P. Suggins, the drawling, overall-clad hick who “was fire chief a while back until they found out who was setting the fires.”
Winters joined the U.S. Marine Corps at 17 and fought in the Pacific during World War Two. After the war he returned to his native Ohio, attended art school and married Eileen Schauder.
At her urging he entered a talent contest, which led to a show on a Dayton radio station on which he would create characters and interview them using two voices.
Winters moved to New York and with his many impressions, facial expressions and sound effects, quickly made a reputation in the city’s stand-up comedy clubs, leading to high-profile appearances on television variety shows.
Winters’ career derailed in 1959 when he began crying on stage at a nightclub in San Francisco. He was later taken into custody by police who found him climbing the rigging of a sailboat, saying he was from outer space.
Wrung out from the solitude of the road and stress of performance, Winters spent eight months in a psychiatric facility.
“I almost lost my sense of humor,” he said in the interview with Reuters, recalling that his role as furniture mover Lennie Pike in the 1963 ensemble comedy film “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” marked a turning point in his recovery.
“I was fresh out of the hospital. I didn’t know if I was up to doing a picture such as this,” he said. But he took the part at his wife’s urging, and “I finally opened up, I realized I was back, and I was in charge of myself and my mind.”
Winters once admitted he felt the need to be ”on” at all times - staying on the set after filming was done to entertain the crew, breaking into characters to amuse strangers on an elevator or joking with customers in a store.
”I was the class clown,” Winters told The New York Times in recounting his high school days. “Other guys had more security, steady dates and all that ... I didn’t. They only thing that kept me together was my comedy.”
In 1981 Winters was cast in the sitcom “Mork and Mindy,” teaming him with Williams, an ardent admirer whose own gift for off-the-wall improvisation made him the Jonathan Winters of his generation.
Winters also became familiar for his commercial work on behalf of such brands as Hefty trash bags, Good Humor ice cream and the California Egg Commission.
He won an Emmy in 1991 for his work on the short-lived sitcom “Davis Rules” and was given the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 1999.
Recent work included providing the voice of Papa Smurf in the 2011 live action “The Smurfs” movie, and a sequel due for release in July.
His wife Eileen, with whom he had two children, died in 2009 of breast cancer.
Reporting By Bill Trott, Eric Kelsey and Steve Gorman; Editing by Jill Serjeant and Vicki Allen and David Brunnstrom