Winters, Jonathan (1925—)

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Winters, Jonathan (1925—)

An improvisational comedian who brought a new kind of comedy to American television and films, Jonathan Winters challenged his audiences by allowing humor to happen spontaneously. He created such characters as Maude Frickert, Chester Honeyhugger, and Elwood P. Suggins, placing them in hilarious situations suggested by impromptu cues. The unpredictable comic appeared often on NBC's Tonight Show, starring Jack Paar, who gave Winters free rein to extemporize and called him "pound for pound the funniest man on earth." His genius for mimicry allowed him to assume the character of anyone from a small lisping child to a large, wisecracking grandmother.

Born in Dayton, Ohio, to an affluent family, Jonathan demonstrated early his talent for imitating sounds as he played with his toy automobiles and stuffed animals. When he was seven, his parents divorced and his paternal grandfather—owner of the Winters National Bank—became the dominant male figure in his life. According to Winters, his grandfather was an irrepressible extrovert whose behavior was a strong influence on his grandson's comic talents.

In school he majored in being the class clown and told an interviewer, "I used to drive some of my teachers crazy." At 17 he quit school and joined the U.S. Marine Corps, serving in combat in the Pacific during World War II. In his spare time he entertained his buddies with sidesplitting imitations of the officers. After the war he returned to finish high school and then drift around the country, taking odd jobs picking apricots or working in factories, always adding to his store of interesting material that would find its way into comic routines. He decided on a career as a cartoonist and studied at the Dayton Art Institute for two and a half years, which he credits for increasing his power of observation as he later focused his wit on humorous characters and situations.

His future wife, a fellow art student, was entranced by Winter's talents as a comic improviser and encouraged him to enter a local contest for amateur entertainers, which he won. A Dayton radio station, impressed with his talents, hired him as an early-morning disc jockey. As Jonathan told interviewer Alan Gill, "I couldn't entice one guest on the program that whole year. So I made up characters myself, drawing from the characters I'd observed over the years—the hip rubes, the Babbits, the pseudointellectuals, the little politicians." In 1950 he moved to a larger radio station in Columbus, Ohio, honing his talents there until 1953, when he left for New York City.

Arriving in Manhattan with $55.46, Winters began performing at the Blue Angel nightclub, where he met and impressed television personalities Arthur Godfrey, Jack Paar, and Mike Wallace. All three found spots for him on their shows, and his career was launched. Particularly enthusiastic was Jack Paar, who gave him a network audience on The Morning Show, which Paar emceed for CBS at that time. In the late 1950s Winters was a frequent guest on Paar's The Tonight Show (renamed The Jack Paar Show in 1958). He also filled in for the star, drawing rave reviews in newspapers all over the United States.

The comedian suffered a mental breakdown in May of 1959, bursting into tears onstage in a San Francisco nightclub; a few days later, policemen took him in custody for climbing the rigging of an old sailing ship docked at Fisherman's Wharf. His wife transferred him to a private sanatarium, and after a month in analysis, Winters modified his work habits and life style. He explained to Joe Hymans in an interview in the New York Herald Tribune, "I had a compulsion to entertain. Now I've found the button. I can push it, sit back, and let people come to me instead of going to them, as do most clowns like me who are victims of hypertension."

In the early 1960s Winters worked almost exclusively in television, playing dramatic roles on Shirley Temple's children's programs and comedy on variety shows hosted by Garry Moore and Paar. In May of 1964 he signed an exclusive long-term contract with NBC calling for six television specials a season. He was already scheduled for a special with Art Carney called A Wild Winter's Night early in 1964, and the show disappointed both his fans and the critics, who found it too rigid in format for the freewheeling comedian. When Jonathan made an attempt to correct this problem in his six specials called The Jonathan Winters Show, critics found the shows too loose. Dennis Braithwaite of the Toronto Globe and Mail believed he was better as an intruder on other people's shows as "a mocking corporeal wraith who comes ambling out of nowhere to delight and shock us awake and then retires to his tree." After one ill-fated season of the specials, Winters's appearances on NBC were limited sporadic guest appearances. In the 1980s, he performed with Robin Williams as the baby in the Mork and Mindy series.

One of Winters's major goals in the 1960s was to work in motion pictures. The most important films he appeared in were It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, The Loved One, and The Russians Are Coming. He also starred in another medium: audio albums for Verve-MGM, including The Wonderful World of Jonathan Winters, Down to Earth with Jonathan Winters, and Whistle-Stopping with Jonathan Winters, a satire on politicians of all stripes. Making use of his artistic talents, he created both the drawings and captions in the book Mouth Breath, Conformity, and Other Social Ills, published by Bobbs-Merrill in 1965.

Winters is an entertainer with a rare and bountiful combination of talents. Director Stanley Kramer, who directed Winters in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, called him "the only genius I know."

—Benjamin Griffith

Further Reading:

Aylesworth, Thomas G. The World Almanac Who's Who of Film. New York, World Almanac, 1987.

Braithwaite, Dennis. Toronto Globe and Mail. February 19, 1964.Gill, Alan. Interview in TV Guide. February 8, 1964.

Hymans, Joe. New York Herald Tribune. March 5, 1961.

Inman, David. The TV Encyclopedia: The Most Comprehensive Guide to Everybody Who Is Anybody in Television. New York, Putnam, 1991.

Lackmann, Ron. Remember Television. New York, Putnam, 1971.