Comic Jonathan Winters Dead

Improv legend who inspired Robin Williams was 87

By Newser Editors and Wire Services

Posted Apr 12, 2013 12:21 PM CDT

(Newser) – Jonathan Winters, the cherub-faced comedian whose breakneck improvisations and misfit characters inspired the likes of Robin Williams and Jim Carrey, has died at age 87. Winters was a pioneer of improvisational standup comedy, with an exceptional gift for mimicry, a grab bag of eccentric personalities, and a bottomless reservoir of creative energy. Facial contortions, sound effects, tall tales—all could be used in a matter of seconds to get a laugh. The humor most often was based in reality—his characters Maude Frickert and Elwood P. Suggins, for example, were based on people Winters knew growing up in Ohio.

A devotee of Groucho Marx and Laurel and Hardy, Winters inspired Johnny Carson, Billy Crystal, Tracey Ullman, and Lily Tomlin, among others. But Williams and Carrey are his best-known followers. Winters, who battled alcoholism and depression for years, was introduced to millions of new fans in 1981 as the son of Williams' goofball alien and his earthling wife in the final season of ABC's Mork and Mindy. Decades earlier, Winters made television history when RCA broadcast the first public demonstration of color videotape on The Jonathan Winters Show in 1956. Winters quickly realized the possibilities, 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."

This undated file image shows comedian and actor Jonathan Winters.
This undated file image shows comedian and actor Jonathan Winters.   (AP Photo, file)
This March 1967 file photo shows comedian Jonathan Winters in a scene from the film Eight on the Lam.
This March 1967 file photo shows comedian Jonathan Winters in a scene from the film "Eight on the Lam."   (AP Photo/United Artists)
This 1967 file photo released by ABC shows comedian Jonathan Winters, hosting Holiday on Ice.
This 1967 file photo released by ABC shows comedian Jonathan Winters, hosting "Holiday on Ice."   (AP Photo/ABC-TV, file)
Jonathan Winters in 1997.
Jonathan Winters in 1997.   (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, file)
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Jonathan Winters shows off his improv skills.   (YouTube)
Winters roasts Gov. Ronald Reagan.   (YouTube)

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