April 12, 2013

Groundbreaking improv comic Jonathan Winters dies

The Associated Press

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Comedian and actor Jonathan Winters: In the mid-1950s, "The Jonathan Winters Show" pioneered the then-new videotape technology with such stunts as showing up as two characters onscreen together.

AP

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Comedian Jonathan Winters appears in drag to play his mother in a scene from the 1967 movie "Eight on the Lam," which also starred Bob Hope and Phyllis Diller.

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Winters received the Kennedy Center's second Mark Twain Prize for Humor in 1999, a year after Richard Pryor.

In later years, he was sought out for his changeling voice, and he contributed to numerous cartoons and animated films. He played three characters in the "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" movie in 2000.

The Internet Movie Database website credits him as the voice of Papa in the forthcoming "The Smurfs 2" film.

He continued to work almost to the end of his life, and to influence new generations of comics.

"No him, no me. No MOST of us, comedy-wise," comic Patton Oswalt tweeted Friday.

Winters made television history in 1956 when RCA broadcast the first public demonstration of color videotape on "The Jonathan Winters Show."

The comedian quickly realized the possibilities, author David Hajdu wrote in The New York Times in 2006. He soon used video technology "to appear as two characters, bantering back and forth, seemingly in the studio at the same time. You could say he invented the video stunt."

Winters was born Nov. 11, 1925, in Dayton, Ohio. Growing up during the Depression as an only child whose parents divorced when he was 7, he spent a lot of time entertaining himself.

Winters, who battled alcoholism in his younger years, described his father as an alcoholic. But he found a comedic mentor in his mother, radio personality Alice Bahman.

"She was very fast. Whatever humor I've inherited I'd have to give credit to her," he told the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2000.

Winters joined the Marines at 17 and served two years in the South Pacific. He returned to study at the Dayton Art Institute, helping him develop keen observational skills. At one point, he won a talent contest (and the first prize of a watch) by doing impressions of movie stars.

After stints as a radio disc jockey and TV host in Ohio from 1950-53, he left for New York, where he found early work doing impressions of John Wayne, Cary Grant, Marx and James Cagney, among others.

One night after a show, an older man sweeping up told him he wasn't breaking any new ground by mimicking the rich or famous.

"He said, 'What's the matter with those characters in Ohio? I'll bet there are some far-out dudes that you grew up with back in Ohio,'" Winters told the Orange County Register in 1997.

Two days later, he cooked up one of his most famous characters: the hard-drinking, dirty old woman Maude Frickert, modeled in part on his own mother and an aunt.

Appearances on Paar's show and others followed and Winters soon had a following. Before long, he was struggling with depression and drinking.

"I became a robot," Winters told TV critics in 2000. "I almost lost my sense of humor ... I had a breakdown and I turned myself in (to a mental hospital). It's the hardest thing I've ever had to do."

Winters was hospitalized for eight months in the early 1960s. It's a topic he rarely addressed and never dwelled on.

"If you make a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year and you're talking to the blue-collar guy who's a farmer 200 miles south of Topeka, he's looking up and saying, 'That bastard makes (all that money) and he's crying about being a manic depressive?'" Winters said.

When he got out, there was a role as a slow-witted character waiting in the 1963 ensemble film "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."

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Additional Photos

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A 1967 photo of Jonathan Winters hosting ABC's "Holiday on Ice."

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Comedian Jonathan Winters is shown in Hollywood, Ca., Aug. 12, 1955.

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Jonathan Winters poses with his carvings and sculptures at his home in Toluca Lake, Calif., in 1966.

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