Groundbreaking Improv Comedian Jonathan Winters Dies At Age 87

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Jonathan Winters photo
Comedian Jonathan Winters performs at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, Sept. 7, 1971.

Comedian Jonathan Winters, whose manic improvisations and misfit characters were a major influence on comedians such as Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal and Jim Carrey, died Friday at the age of 87. Winters’ own website and various news outlets said the funnyman passed away of natural causes at his Montecito, Calif., home while surrounded by family and friends.

“Jonathan Winters was the worthy custodian of a sparkling and childish comedic genius," Carrey tweeted on Friday. "He did God's work. I was lucky 2 know him." 

In the 1950s, Winters' breakneck style and repertoire of madcap characters made him a leading stand-up comic, but the stress of being on the road led to a mental breakdown in 1959, the AP reported.

As a comedian, Winters' main thing wasn't telling jokes -- he actually rebelled against that. Instead, he stuck to a stream-of-consciousness style that "could veer into the surreal," the AP noted. 

"Most of us see things three-dimensionally," Robert Morse, who starred with Winters in the 1965 movie "The Loved One," once said to the New York Times. “I think Jonny sees things 59-dimensionally. Give me a hairbrush and I see a hairbrush. Give Jonny a hairbrush and it will be a dozen funny things."

As a film actor, Winters unleashed a new form of funny in the 1960s comedies "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" and "The Russians are Coming, the Russians Are Coming.” On television, he regularly appeared on "The Tonight Show," first with host Jack Paar and later with host Johnny Carson. He also had his own TV shows "The Jonathan Winters Show" and "The Wacky World of Jonathan Winters.”

No matter what the show, though, Winters' genius for comic improvisation was showcased in virtually every skit.

“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,” the AP wrote.

In 1981, Winters gained millions of new fans portraying the son of Mork, Williams' oddball alien sitcom character, and Mork's earthling wife in the final season of "Mork and Mindy" on ABC.

Commenting on Winters’ influential improv skills, Williams once said: "The best stuff was before the cameras were on, when he was open and free to create. Jonathan would just blow the doors off."

In an interview with U.S. News & World Report in 1988, Winters discussed what inspired him to portray, often hilariously, so many different roles: "As a kid, I always wanted to be lots of things. 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."

Winters was a devotee of Groucho Marx as well as Laurel and Hardy, but often his routine was based in reality. His characters Elwood P. Suggins and Maude Frickert were reminiscent of individuals he knew while growing up in Ohio, the AP said.

Winters won an Emmy Award for best-supporting actor for his role as Randy Quaid's father in the sitcom "Davis Rules" [1991]. In 2003, he was nominated for an Emmy as outstanding guest actor in a comedy series for his appearance in "Life With Bonnie."

The comedian received two Grammys -- one for his work on "The Little Prince" album in 1975 and another for his "Crank Calls" comedy album in 1996. And in 1999, he received the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for Humor in 1999, a year after Richard Pryor became the first person to win the award.

On Twitter, Richard Lewis called Winters "the greatest improvisational comedian of all time," while Roseanne Barr said, "a genius has vacated this realm."

Albert Brooks tweeted, “Beyond funny. He invented a new category of comedic genius."

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