LOS ANGELES – Jonathan Winters, the cherub-faced comedian whose breakneck improvisations and misfit characters inspired the likes of Robin Williams and Jim Carrey, has died. He was 87.
The Ohio native died Thursday evening at his Montecito, Calif., home of natural causes, said Joe Petro III, a longtime friend. He was surrounded by family and friends.
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.
“Jonathan Winters was the worthy custodian of a sparkling and childish comedic genius. He did God’s work. I was lucky 2 know him,” Carrey tweeted on Friday.
On Jack Paar’s television show in 1964, Winters was handed a foot-long stick and he swiftly became a fisherman, violinist, lion tamer, canoeist, U.N. diplomat, bullfighter, flutist, delusional psychiatric patient, British headmaster and Bing Crosby’s golf club.
“As a kid, I always wanted to be lots of things,” he told U.S. News & World Report in 1988. “I was a Walter Mitty type. I wanted to be in the French Foreign Legion, a detective, a doctor, a test pilot with a scarf, a fisherman who hauled in a tremendous marlin after a 12-hour fight.”
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 and his free-for-all brand of humor inspired Johnny Carson, Billy Crystal, Tracey Ullman and Lily Tomlin, among many others. But Williams and Carrey are his best-known followers.
“First he was my idol, then he was my mentor and amazing friend. I’ll miss him huge. He was my Comedy Buddha. Long live the Buddha,” Williams said in a statement Friday.
Williams helped introduce Winters to 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.”
The two often strayed from the script.
“The best stuff was before the cameras were on, when he was open and free to create,” Williams once said. “Jonathan would just blow the doors off.”
Winters’ only Emmy was for best-supporting actor for playing Randy Quaid’s father in the sitcom “Davis Rules” (1991). Winters received the Kennedy Center’s second Mark Twain Prize for Humor in 1999, a year after Richard Pryor.