Monday, April 15, 2013

RIP: Jonathan Winters

I have returned to the computer and my drive-by blogging to discover that the great Jonathan Winters passed away last Friday, peacefully, with family in attendance, at the age of 87.

Faithful readers will know that I sometimes stray from my tendency to address political, military, historical, or economic topics, and yes, this is one of those times. 

For those of the younger generation who are not aware of the specific details of his life and import, or even his name, Jonathan Winters was one of the great pioneering comedians of our time, and practically invented improvisational comedy as we know it. 

In respect to comedy, Winters was nothing short of sheer genius.  I have often observed that the phrase 'crazed genius' can actually be applied to any genius; they're all crazed.  Being crazed is the price of admission to their world, a balancing act of nature.  So it was with Winters, a man who battled sometimes debilitating mental illness but who won through in the end, accommodating his demons and winning them over as his dear friends. 

He came by his problems naturally enough, through his family, with ample doses of nature and nurture (or negligence) growing up in Dayton, Ohio.  His grandfather was a noted banker and frustrated comedian, his father an alcoholic given a job as an investment banker by his dad ("sort of a hip Willy Loman"), and his mother eventually a popular radio hostess.  His memories include the times when he was locked in the car while his father drank himself into a stupor at bars.  With the Depression, his grandfather's bank failed and his parents divorced, and seven-year-old Jonathan (an only child) and his mother moved in with his aunt in Springfield, Ohio.  He credited his grandfather as a major influence of his comedic talent, and he honed it to a fine degree by hours and days alone in his room, and his mother as well, who had a flawed but exacting flair for single performance but was fundamentally an unpleasant person.  He acknowledged her contribution though: "She was very fast.  Whatever humor I've inherited I'd have to give credit to her."

PFC Jonathan Winters, USMC

A less than mediocre student though wildly popular as the class clown, Winters escaped as soon as he was able by joining the Marine Corps at the age of 17 in the latter years of World War II.  He served as a gunner aboard USS Bon Homme Richard (CV-31) off the coast of Japan in the final weeks of the war and then as part of the occupying force in Yokosuka.  He returned to Ohio with an interest in art and becoming a cartoonist, and met his future wife Eileen in art school (who proceeded him in death in 2009, a victim of breast cancer).  She encouraged him to compete in a local talent contest for the purpose of winning first prize, a wristwatch.  He won, and soon gained employment at a local radio station as the DJ who was only supposed to introduce the songs and pass along the weather report.  He couldn't help himself – literally – and he soon broadened his on-air repertoire to commentary.  Allowed interviews of local newsmakers, the station discovered that he would often interview himself in different characters (e.g., Colonel Hardbody of the Atomic Energy Commission) and suggested that he move along.

Winters and wife Eileen

He set out for New York and promised his wife (and her father) that if he didn't make it within a year, he would return and try his hand at a real job ("Fire up that bait shop over in Pitchin.").  But he won a shot by way of Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts (an earlier, less hyperbolic version of American Idol), and he was discovered.  He provided the voices of beer steins in commercials for Utica Beer (Schultz and Dooley), starting a side career in voicing characters in animation, and as the distinguished refuse collector ("gahr-bahj") for Hefty trash bags.  He soon came to the attention of early comedic television greats Jack Paar, the father of the Tonight Show ("I kid you not"), and Steve Allen, who commanded a repertory of top comedic talents.  Both of them wisely allowed Winters free rein in his comedy gigs ("Did you ever undress in front of a dog?") – one could never call them 'routines'; they were anything but, and they immediately realized and were enthralled by his immense talent.

It was during this early success that Winters invited his mother, increasingly jealous of his success, on the set of the Tonight Show to see his appearance firsthand and to meet Jack Paar.  Paar told her how proud she must be of his talent.  She deadpanned, "He's the biggest joke I ever wrote." 

Winters defied convention by simply winging it, a flow of consciousness approach that didn't rely on jokes but instead whatever happened to appear in his head at the moment.  His amazingly animated face ran the gamut from wide-eyed grimace to a perfect hang-dog expression, voicing a range of characters accompanied by sound effects (a cracking whip, a hovering UFO, the impact of an arrow).  He began to develop characters that would increasingly re-occur, such as Maude Frickert, an old but edgy woman based on his mother and his aunt, and Elwood P Suggins, a Midwestern bait shop proprietor again based on actual acquaintances from his childhood. 

He was proud of his experience as a Marine and used it to craft characters in authority.  His best was one that never failed to pop into my head again whenever I encountered some martinet staff officer – a portrayal of a lieutenant giving a bizarre pep talk to a new platoon of Marines about to attack the beach: "I'm Lieutenant Matthews.  That's First Lieutenant Matthews, and don't you forget it!"  After describing the mission as one of assaulting against impossible odds and letting the sense of impending doom descend, he pauses and says, "I wish I could be with you guys . . . (audience laughter), but they need me here.  I will be observing, however, from a distance, through thick lenses." 

His comedy was a new concept and remarkable in its daring, and people would watch and laugh (laugh? howl) at being battered by his machine-gun delivery of comedy that often had no real context, a surreal comedy just for the sake of laughter.  One superb and classic example was when Jack Paar handed him a stick and asked him to "do something with it":

After Paar unfortunately fell out with the network, Johnny Carson took to Winters as well.  Carson shamelessly ripped off the Maude Frickert character for his own Aunt Blabby years later, and reprised Winters' classic stick act with his own – rehearsed – 'Dickie the Stick' routine, though I would expect that he would be quick to acknowledge the source.

Winters became so immersed in his characters that he became lost, and in 1959 suffered a breakdown while on stage at a nightclub in San Francisco.  The police found him climbing the rigging of a sailing ship at a nearby wharf, and remained in character as a hilarious space alien throughout the incident.  He soon voluntarily checked into a sanatorium for treatment over an eight-month period, which bedeviled him for the rest of his life though he would occasionally make comments about "hitting the sauce" or "going back in the zoo" during his acts.  He was diagnosed with Manic Depressive Disorder (now called Bipolar, but I prefer the former), and he wrestled with his consuming Muse for the rest of his life, crushed by the public knowledge of his malady in the days before such diagnoses and personal news became part of the curriculum vitae of the Hollywood Glitterati.

Within hours of returning home, he received a phone call from Stanley Kramer inviting him to appear in a major role in the huge comedy "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World", starring practically every comedian in America at the time.  Unsure of himself after his commitment, his wife quickly told him that his career would be ended unless he took the part.  Winters accepted and played the role of the moving van driver Lennie Pike, which he credits with putting his life back in perspective, and he became a life-long friend with Kramer.  His part is best remembered for the scene (filmed all in one take) wherein he destroys a gas station in a fit of rage for being cut out of the illicit pursuit of buried money by his former cohorts.  I remember him best though for his response to Sid Caesar about the expected ill-gotten gains being tax free.  "What do you mean 'tax free'? . . . But sure if we find the money we still have to report the taxes.  Otherwise it would be like stealing from the government. . . . Listen, everybody has to pay taxes.  Even businessmen who rob and cheat and steal from people every day, even they have to pay taxes!"

Another part that stuck with me was his portrayal of twin brothers in the mortuary business in the otherwise lamentable The Loved One, based on a novel by Evelyn Waugh with screenplay by Terry Southern (most famous for his Dr Strangelove).  More successful was his portrayal of Brigadier General Billy Joe Hallson of the Texas National Guard in the comedy Viva Max! (based on a novel by – oddly enough – Jim Lehrer), wherein a Mexican general (played by Winters' close friend Peter Ustinov), assisted by his sargento primero (John Astin), walks in with a platoon of soldiers and seizes the Alamo in order to impress his girlfriend.  He reprised the same sort of role in The Russians Are Coming!, The Russians Are Coming! as deputy sheriff Norman Jones.

He appeared in another small but important role in Moon Over Parador, sort of a Latin American comedic Man in the Iron Mask.  His role was that of a CIA agent named Ralph, watching the events unfold in the fictional Latin country of Parador (national anthem sung to the tune of Bésame Mucho), who uses the cover of impersonating a vacationing Jonathan Winters.  The country's President for Life, Alphonse Simms, suddenly dies in his palace and his right-hand man (Raul Julia playing Roberto Staussman, whose relationship to the real Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay was entirely coincidental, I'm sure) replaces him with an American actor who bears an uncanny resemblance (both roles played by Richard Dreyfuss).  The unlikely name of Simms as a Latin dictator came about when director Paul Mazursky was stuck with extended footage of a huge crowd scene, filmed in Brazil, with the crowd spontaneously breaking into chants of "Sim! Sim!" (Portuguese for "Yes!").  On the spot, Jonathan Winters launched into an impromptu explanation of how the country was founded by an English pirate named Simms (Why not?  There's always Belize.), and repeated the story to Dreyfuss' character in the movie.

Winters' brilliance shown brightest in short bursts, overwhelming funny at first but soon subjecting his audience to sensory overload.  Some of his funniest bits became dulled somewhat when he had to repeat them.  He felt that he was considered a liability because of his struggles with mental health issues (true to some extent in those days) but it is just as true that his talent did not lend itself to standard television or movie formats.  Some would speak (though never bring themselves to complain) that he was always 'on', persistently in always-shifting character, so that one never quite knew what to expect beyond ever-unfolding hilarity.  He had some modest success in television and in the small roles he had in movies but he couldn't sustain the energy needed for a leading role.  His bread-and-butter occupation was in doing voices for such animated flicks like the Smurfs, and he always returned to his love of art, which he portrayed in a style of Grandma Moses as influenced by Salvador Dalí.  My favorite is his First and Last Day of Spring, with a pleasant little village at dawn under an incoming rain of bombs.

He did a single dramatic role as Fats Brown on an episode of Twilight Zone, alongside Jack Klugman, about A Game of Pool from beyond the grave.

He was an inspiration to a new generation of comics, like Robin Williams (his most successful clone) and Jim Carrey (markedly less so).  Williams in particular practically worshiped him unabashedly, and did what he could to keep him in the spotlight.  Williams' big break came with the series Mork and Mindy but it had overstayed its welcome by the fourth season, when Williams brought in Winters to give him a new audience and also to help rescue the show (which finally succumbed nonetheless).  Winters, playing Williams' son (just trust me on this), was good but stuck in a scripted role, and Williams freely admitted that the very best scenes were always free-wheeling off-camera.

The two could be seen together in the occasional interview, but the two giants in the same room, like two cats in a breadbox, never quite seemed to hit the same rhythm.  I remember one such attempt on 60 Minutes (I believe) when the two were wandering outside on a grassy lawn, with Williams trying to keep up with the banter, when Winters suddenly stopped and assumed a wide-eyed expression of solemnity: "This is where he buried them all." 

Winters over the course of his life received a number of nominations for his work, and was granted an Emmy, a Grammy, and a Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.  Accommodating himself to his raging talent until he had it under sufficient control, he was content with his lot ultimately.
But I had a hell of a roll.  I've had a great career, a great time.  Had a lot of problems – who the hell hasn't? – and overcame most of them.  I've met some great people, traveled around the world.  My God, a lot of people never get across town. 
Or as he said at another time:
I couldn't wait for success, so I went ahead without it.
 But best, for my purpose at the moment, is a line from his role in the Twilight Zone:
As long as people talk about you, you're not really dead.  As long as they speak your name, you continue.  A legend doesn't die just because the man dies.
And like that character, I expect that he is now peacefully fishing in some Elysian lake, with his loving wife by his side, his voices now quiet and calming.


  1. Thanks. He was so funny. When he wasn't, as he liked to say, "in the rubber room at the funny farm." Had no idea he was a Marine. Not many get to live to be 87, either. Google doesn't have the painting you mention. Too bad.

  2. Found one example -- a poster on e-Bay, about halfway down the page. Not a very good shot, but it gives you an idea:

  3. Thanks. It was good enough. I copied the pix and will post it in the future.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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