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Groundbreaking improv comic Jonathan Winters dies

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 at age 87.

The Ohio native died Thursday evening at his Montecito, Calif., home of natural causes, said Joe Petro III, a longtime family friend. Petro said Mr. Winters was surrounded by family and friends.

Mr. Winters, born Nov. 11, 1925, in Dayton, Ohio, 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.

On Jack Paar's television show in 1964, Mr. 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," Mr. Winters 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, Mr. Winters and his free-for-all brand of humor inspired Johnny Carson, Billy Crystal, Tracey Ullman and Lily Tomlin, among others. But Williams and Carrey are his best-known followers.

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

He made television history in 1956, when RCA broadcast the first public demonstration of color videotape on The Jonathan Winters Show. Mr. Winters quickly realized the possibilities, author David Hajdu wrote in The New York Times in 2006. He soon used video technology "to appear as two characters, bantering back and forth, seemingly in the studio at the same time. You could say he invented the video stunt."

Mr. Winters, who battled alcoholism and depression for years, was introduced to millions of 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. Said Williams: "The best stuff was before the cameras were on, when he was open and free to create. ... Jonathan would just blow the doors off."

Mr. Winters' only Emmy was for best-supporting actor for playing Randy Quaid's father in the sitcom Davis Rules (1991). He also won two Grammys: One for his work on The Little Prince album in 1975 another for his Crank Calls comedy album in 1996.

Groundbreaking improv comic Jonathan Winters dies 04/12/13 [Last modified: Friday, April 12, 2013 9:18pm]
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