Whenever I feel like I’m “getting too old” to “make anything of my life” (I turn 35 in a couple of weeks, just for context), I have to remind myself of (at least) two people: Guided By Voices frontman Robert Pollard and legendary comedian Jonathan Winters, the later of which passed away on Wednesday at the age of 87.
Winters was born in Dayton, OH – the same place as my dad and girlfriend and 45 minutes from my hometown of Cincinnati – on November 11th, 1925. He was a U.S. Marine and served two tours during World War II.
Known for both his TV and movie roles, he was also known for his incredible skill at improvisation. He dressed in drag as a sassy, cranky old lady (the classic character Maude Frickert) years before Tyler Perry made a zillion dollars doing it (and not doing it nearly as well). He was a cast member in one of the greatest comedy films of all time; It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (remember, there’s only four “mad”s in there). He was a regular on The American Sportsman and the original Hollywood Squares.
When the ratings of a popular TV show begin to fall, the running gag is that the writers will introduce a kid or an alien to improve things. In the case of Mork & Mindy, both of these things were tried when Winters was cast as the son of the title characters (Like Benjamin Button, Orkans age backwards). While great on the show along with Robin Williams, it wasn’t enough to boost ratings and the show was eventually cancelled.
In the 1990s, Winters starred in a show that I really liked, but never really caught on: Davis Rules. It was an underrated sitcom that ABC had high hopes for (they premiered it directly after Super Bowl XXV), and was also cast with current and future stars like Randy Quaid, Patricia Clarkson (who would eventually go on to find sitcom success with Tim Allen on Home Improvement), Bonnie Hunt and Giovanni Ribisi. During this time, he would also take up voice-over work, including the voice of Papa Smurf on The Smurfs from 1986-1990. He also voiced the same character in the 2011 film, which would end up being his final role.
The story goes that Winters’s career started over a wristwatch. Shortly after getting married, Winters lost his watch and the struggling newlyweds couldn’t afford to buy a new one . This was 1949, back when the only way to know the time was to either wear a watch or bug someone else who did. His wife, Eileen, read about a talent contest in the local paper – first prize just happened to be a brand new wristwatch. He encouraged him to go down and “win it” – and he did. Along with the watch, he was also hired on as a radio DJ.
After developing his comedy personality on the air (and getting fired from the radio over a $5.00 raise), Winters took his act to New York City (promising his wife he would return within one year if he wasn’t successful). Eventually he was, and would go on to make numerous TV appearances and record numerous comedy albums.
Winters also had a history of manic depression, alcoholism and nervous breakdowns – including one incident my dad told me about in which he locked himself in a DJ booth and played the same record over and over again for nearly 24 hours. But he managed to overcome all of these and become one of the finest comic performers the world has ever seen. And like Morgan Freeman, Ian McKellan and the aforementioned Mr. Pollard, hit it big at a later age – an age where a lot of people would just have settled for a job at Macy’s selling gloves – which is also one of the many jobs Mr. Winters held throughout his life.
From one Ohio boy to another, Jonathan, I’ll miss you and thank you.
Here’s a clip of Winters doing what he does best
Look for the 2007 film, Certifiably Jonathan, on Netflix
Here’s Time.com’s great feature on him.
Here’s his Wikipedia page.
Here’s a link to the LAist obituary, including some other great videos.