Jonathan Winters, the rotund, rubber-faced, squinty-eyed master of impressions and improvisational comedy who became a staple of late-night television for decades and was a mentor to Robin Williams, died Thursday at home in Montecito, Calif. He was 87.
A family friend, Joe Petro III, told The Associated Press that Mr. Winters died of natural causes.
In a career spanning six decades, Mr. Winters received some of the highest honors of his profession and appeared in dozens of movies and television programs in addition to his work on the comedy circuit.
He was known to start his stage shows by commanding an applauding audience that had risen to its feet, “Please remain standing throughout the evening.”
- Mariners prospect hit by boat dies at age 20
- Costco will buy most farmed salmon from Norway, not Chile
- Low wages for aerospace workers despite tax breaks for employers
- Let's cut traffic by road rationing, Italian style
- A mom's tweet about Oreos in school stirs up culture wars
Most Read Stories
Yet it was less the punch line he savored than immersing himself in a far-ranging series of characters: hillbillies, arrogant city slickers, nerve-shattered airline pilots trying to hide their fear, a hungry cat eyeing a mouse, the oldest living airline stewardess.
Two of his most memorable characters — cranky granny Maude Frickert and bumpkin farmer Elwood P. Suggins (“I think eggs 24 hours a day”) — were born from his early television routines.
Onstage and off, Mr. Winters was wildly unpredictable. He struggled with bipolar disorder, alcohol and nervous breakdowns.
One of the most damaging episodes came in 1959, when he was reported to have climbed the mast of a moored historic ship in San Francisco while drunk and naked and was subsequently taken to a sanatorium.
Mr. Winters was often viewed by producers as a liability, and this led to a scattershot, though memorable, film career.
In Stanley Kramer’s “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” Mr. Winters played a moving-van driver. In the Cold War comedy “The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming,” he portrayed a less-than-able assistant to a Nantucket police chief.
In “The Loved One,” Mr. Winters played two brothers, one of whom schemes to make room in his cemetery by launching corpses into outer space under the slogan “Resurrection Now!”
On television, Mr. Winters’ self-titled variety show aired on NBC in 1956 and 1957 and displayed him in dazzling form as a sketch comic.
In one episode, he lampooned newsman Edward R. Murrow, conducting an earnest interview with Napoleon (he played both roles).
In other spots, he portrayed Robin Hood and Gen. George Armstrong Custer. His second show aired on CBS from 1967 to 1969, with Mr. Winters — in his signature characters — bantering with celebrity guests.
Perhaps his best-known work in television was playing Mearth, the half-earthling, half-alien son of the title characters in the ABC sci-fi sitcom “Mork & Mindy,” which starred Robin Williams as an alien from planet Ork and Pam Dawber as his earthling girlfriend.
Mr. Winters hatched from an egg middle-aged and weighing 225 pounds, explained by the fact that Orkans age in reverse.
Clad in bright red overalls holding a frog in the pocket, and with his plump frame and curiously furrowing brow, Mr. Winters made a seamless transition into the role of a big, cuddly baby.
Jonathan Harshman Winters III was born Nov. 11, 1925, in Dayton, Ohio. His father, an investment banker, was an alcoholic. Growing up during the Depression as an only child whose parents divorced when he was 7, he spent a lot of time entertaining himself.
His upbringing with his mother was equally unpleasant. She became a talk-show radio host, and he described her as increasingly jealous of his success.
At 17, he dropped out of boarding school and joined the Marine Corps. After World War II service in the Pacific, he briefly entered Kenyon College before enrolling in the Dayton Art Institute.
In 1948, he married a fellow art student, Eileen Schauder.
About that time, he won a talent contest that led to a job at a Dayton radio station. Mr. Winters was fired after a year for conducting interviews with himself in strange voices.
In 1953, he moved to New York and began appearing in commercials and television programs.
His wife died in 2009. They had two children, who survive him.
His book of short stories, “Winters’ Tales” made the best-seller lists, and he won the 1991 Emmy Award for a supporting role as a retired officer and grandfather in the ABC comedy “Davis Rules.”
His recording “Crank Calls” won the 1995 Grammy Award for best spoken comedy album. Mr. Winters was the second recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, in 1999; Richard Pryor was the first.
Late in his career, Mr. Winters recorded voice-overs for animated films including “The Smurfs” and “The Flintstones.”
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.