Friday, April 12, 2013

The Late Great Jonathan Winters

Jonathan Winters died last night, 12 April 2013, at the age of 87.

Jonathan Winters was born 11 November 1925 in Dayton, Ohio. His parents separated when he was seven and his mother took him to live in Springfield, Ohio where they lived with her mother. Mr. Winters left high school to join the United States Marine Corps during World War II. He served as a gunner on the aircraft carrier Bon Homme Richard in the Pacific Theatre. Following the war he studied art at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, in hopes of becoming a political cartoonist. He transferred from Kenyon College to the Dayton Art Institute to further his studies.

His career as a comic began when his wife entered him at a talent contest in Dayton, the grand prize of which was a wrist watch (Mr. Winters had lost his several months earlier). Mr. Winters won the contest and as a result got a job as a disc jockey at WING in Dayton, Ohio. He also worked at WIZE in Springfield, Ohio. It was while he was a disc jockey that he began making up characters. He moved from radio to television, performing at WBNS-TV in Columbus, Ohio as Johnny Winters. After two and half years at WBNS he moved to New York City seeking a job on network radio. He never found a job in network radio, but he did begin work as a stand up comic.

It was in 1954 he made his television debut on Chance of a Lifetime on the Dumont network. That same year he appeared on the TV shows The Blue Angel and Omnibus. In the Fifties he was the host of Here's the Show and his own show, The Jonathan Winters Show . He also appeared on such TV shows as The Colgate Comedy HourTonight (both with Steve Allen and Jack Paar), The NBC Comedy Hour, The Jackie Gleason Show, The Arlene Francis Show, The George Gobel Show, The Steve Allen Plymouth Show, Candid Camera, The Magic Land of Alakazam, and Shirley Temple's Storybook.

In the Sixties Jonathan Winters once more had his own show, The Jonathan Winters Show, which ran from 1967 to 1969. He appeared on such shows as The Garry Moore Show, The Twilight ZoneTalent Scouts , The Jerry Lewis Show, The Andy Williams ShowWhat's My Line, I've Got a Secret, The Jack Paar Programme, The Carol Burnett Show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and Rowan & Martin's Laugh In.  He made his film debut in the epic comedy It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963). He also appeared in the films The Loved One (1965), The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming (1966), Penelope (1966), Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad (1967), Eight on the Lam (1967), and Viva Max (1969).

In the Seventies Jonathan Winters once more had his own television show, The Wacky World of Jonathan Winters He appeared on such shows as This is Your LifeThe Dean Martin Comedy HourWait Till Your Father Gets Home (voicing his character Maude Frickert), The Hollywood Squares, The New Scooby-Doo Movies (voicing himself), Jack Paar Tonite, Day at Night, and The Muppet Show. He was the voice of Porky Pine, Molester Mole, and Wiley Catt in the television special I Go Pogo. He also played the villain Albert Paradine II in the reunion special More Wild Wild West.  He appeared in such films as Sonic Boom (1974) and The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (1979).

In the Eighties Jonathan Winters was a regular on both Mork & Mindy and Hee Haw.  He had his own special The Wonderful World of Jonathan Winters in 1986. He appeared in the telefilm Alice in Wonderland. He also appeared on The Tonight Show. In the Nineties Mr. Winters he was the star of the TV show Davis Rules. He appeared in the films The Flintstones (1994), The Shadow (1994), and The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle (2000).  In the Naughts he starred in his own film, Certifiably Jonathan  (2007), as well as the film Tell Me Who You Are (2004), and Cattle Call (2006).

Jonathan Winters the spokesman for Hefty brand trash bags for many years. He also recorded several comedy albums. Mr. Winters was in regular demand for voice work in television shows and animated films. He provided voices for such animated shows as Linus! The Lion Hearted in the Sixties, Smurfs and The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley in the Eighties, and Fish Police in the Nineties, among others. He also provided the voice for Papa Smurf in the live actions films The Smurfs (2011) and the soon to be released The Smurfs II.

It is hard to put into words just how talented and how funny Jonathan Winters was. He created a number of memorable characters in his routines, including acid tongued randmother Maude Frickert (my favourite), Midwestern outdoor guru Elwood P. Suggins, and small town tycoon B. B. Bindlestiff. His routines also often included sound effects; Mr. Winters' voice could imitate anything from machine gun fire to the roar of a car engine. He was also known for his skill at improvisation, at which he was one of the true masters. He was a comedian who did not do jokes. Indeed, unlike many of his contemporaries who arose in the Fifties, Jonathan Winters did not draw upon current affairs for his humour, but rather upon the human condition. More so than any other comic of his time, Mr. Winters' comedy was very character driven.

It is perhaps for this reason that Jonathan Winters shined in the few films in which he appeared. It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World was his film debut and it was an impressive debut. As furniture mover Lennie Pike, Mr. Winters was easily one of the funniest characters in a film filled with funny men and women. He played no less than two roles in The Loved One, playing both the scheming Reverend Wilbur Glenworthy and his out of luck brother Henry Glenworthy. In The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming! he played bumbling Assistant Police Chief Norman Jonas. Mr. Winters played all of these characters very well. In fact, his performances are impressive enough that it seems a shame he did not appear in more films. Whether in his comedy routines or in films, Jonathan Winters had a talent for creating off the wall characters who were always three dimensional.

As both a comedian and an actor Jonathan Winters was a man of incredible talent. As a comedian there was no one else quite like him. Mr. Winters was impossible to categorise and wholly unpredictable. While with many other comedians, one could say, "He like so and so on," one could make no such comparisons with Jonathan Winters. Quite simply, Jonathan Winters was a most singular talent.

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