Groundbreaking improv comic Jonathan Winters dies

Oklahoman Published: April 12, 2013
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Winters described his father as an alcoholic. But he found a comedic mentor in his mother, radio personality Alice Bahman.

“She was very fast. Whatever humor I've inherited I'd have to give credit to her,” Winters told the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2000.

Winters joined the Marines at 17 and served two years in the South Pacific. He returned to study at the Dayton Art Institute, helping him develop keen observational skills. At one point, he won a talent contest (and the first prize of a watch) by doing impressions of movie stars.

After stints as a radio disc jockey and TV host in Ohio from 1950-53, he left for New York, where he found early work doing impressions of John Wayne, Cary Grant, Marx and James Cagney, among others.

One night after a show, an older man sweeping up told him he wasn't breaking any new ground by mimicking the rich or famous.

“He said, `What's the matter with those characters in Ohio? I'll bet there are some far-out dudes that you grew up with back in Ohio,“' Winters told the Orange County Register in 1997.

Two days later, he cooked up one of his most famous characters: the hard-drinking, dirty old woman Maude Frickert, modeled in part on his own mother and an aunt. The character was the forerunner of Johnny Carson's Aunt Blabby.

Appearances on Paar's show and others followed and Winters soon had a following. And before long, he was struggling with depression and his drinking.

“I became a robot,” Winters told TV critics in 2000. “I almost lost my sense of humor … I had a breakdown and I turned myself in (to a mental hospital). It's the hardest thing I've ever had to do.”

Winters was hospitalized for eight months in the early 1960s. It's a topic he rarely addressed and never dwelled on.

“If you make a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year and you're talking about to the blue-collar guy who's a farmer 200 miles south of Topeka, he's looking up and saying, `That bastard makes (all that money) and he's crying about being a manic depressive?“' Winters said.

When he got out, there was a role as a slow-witted character waiting in the 1963 ensemble film “It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”

“I finally opened up and realized I was in charge,” Winters told PBS interviewers for 2000's “Jonathan Winters: On the Loose.” “Improvisation is about taking chances, and I was ready to take chances.”

Roles in other movies followed, as did TV shows, including his own. But while show business kept Winters busy, he stayed with his painting.

“I find painting a much slower process than comedy, where you can go a mile a minute verbally and hope to God that some of the people out there understand you,” he told U.S. News and World Report in 1988. “I don't paint every day. I'm not that motivated. I don't do anything the same every day. Discipline is tough for a guy who is a rebel.”

Among his books is a collection of short stories called “Winters' Tales” (1987). He also was a painter.

“I've done for the most part pretty much what I intended — I ended up doing comedy, writing and painting,” he told U.S. News. “I've had a ball. And as I get older, I just become an older kid.”



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