In 1959, stand-up comedian Jonathan Winters suffered a nervous breakdown while onstage at the “hungry i” in San Francisco. Although details of the incident have entered show business folklore and have become cloaked in mythology, Winters, when asked, always disputed the press accounts of the occasion. Legend has it that Winters left the club in a taxi after his performance, visited a 19th century Scottish built ship, the Balclutha, at Fisherman’s Wharf, and proceeded to scale the riggings, naked and shouting.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported at the time that Winters told his arresting officers, “I’m John Q. What’s it to you? I’m in orbit, man! I’m a mooncat on Cloud 9, from outer space.”
By this time in his career, Winters had progressed from local radio and television jobs in his home state of Ohio to regular appearances on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show, The Steve Allen Plymouth Show, a number of panel style game shows, as well as numerous other high profile show-business activities. Life was looking pretty good for Winters, a former Marine and college dropout. All of the hard work he had been putting into his career since moving to New York with his wife in 1953 was beginning to pay off.
But, man did he hate those nightclubs.
Director Paul Mazursky, who was also a stand-up comic at the time, remembers Winters on stage that night taking family photos from his wallet, contemplating them, and then breaking into tears. Obviously, life on the road, being away from his family, and a debilitating alcoholic predisposition were not doing Mr. Winters any favors. Winters later recounted a phone call with his young son around this time where the son commented on what a drag it was to go fishing alone. Perhaps being away from his new family was more than his sensitive soul could take.
Winters was admitted into a psychiatric hospital for two weeks of observation following his 1959 arrest. In 1961, he suffered another breakdown and was admitted into hospital, this time, for eight months. While detained, Winters was offered the option of electroshock therapy. When told that EST would be necessary to rid him of the debilitating childhood memories that exacerbated his manic depression, Winters declined.
He realized, even then, that the pain of being raised by an indifferent mother and an abusive, alcoholic father were essential to the creation of his art. Without his childhood memories as a resource to draw from, however painful, Winters was unsure of where else he would turn for inspiration. Winters concluded, “I need that pain,” and drew upon it for the length of his career.
Immediately upon his release from a Belmont, California sanitarium, director Stanley Kramer offered Winters a role in his upcoming star-studded comedy extravaganza, the appropriately titled, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World .
And the rest is, sort of, history, as they say, except…it wasn’t. Jonathan Winters released a number of comedy albums (don’t you miss comedy albums?) on the Verve label in the early 1960’s, appeared in a surprisingly small number of films at that time (including 1965’s unusual Evelyn Waugh adaptation The Loved One), and appeared semi-regularly on talk shows where he was given free rein to unleash his improvisational skills.
Winters always believed that he was offered such little work because people believed he was truly mad, or that people were unwilling to allow him the freedom to create as he saw fit. Comedy writers disparaged him because their finely honed scripts would be torn to shreds through Winters’ improvisations, although Winters countered that if the scripts were so funny, why would they need a laugh track?
As a comedian, Winters walked a terrifyingly fine line between success and its alternative because he didn’t rely on “jokes” with a standard set-up and punchline; he would develop characters on the spot through an array of voices and props that required him to be, utterly, in the moment, creating entire scenarios in real time as he was speaking. This manner of performance is not, obviously, a safe way to nurture and foster one’s career.
However, Winters persevered in his own unique way, despite Hollywood’s reluctance to employ him on a regular basis, by forging his own path and sticking to his principles. Subsequently, he has created a singular body of work that, however small, will not be equaled. Whether he was hired to play himself as a dead billiards hustler in The Twilight Zone, or play himself as Maude Frickert on The New Scooby Doo Movies, or play himself as Mearth, Robin Williams’ earthbound space child on Mork and Mindy, or even pose as an Indian for a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover, the results were always undeniably Jonathan.
As much as Winters revealed about his personal life through his observational humor, there were other aspects of his life that many people are probably unaware of. For example, despite his insistence that he was a mediocre college student, he studied art at the Dayton Art Institute after returning from his tour of duty in the South Pacific. Winters’ art has been compared, sometimes by Winters himself, to Miro, Magritte, and Dali, but the combination of serious subject matter embedded within whimsical and surrealist settings echo and complement the live improvisational performances of the artist himself.
The comedian and artist also took great pride in his Cherokee ancestry (1/16 th -- “If I had a nosebleed, I'd be out of the tribe!” he would say) and would often quietly contribute to various Native American causes. A clear indication of Winters’ hip humanitarianism lies in the fact that he was there, with Dick Gregory, Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, and others, when a coalition of American Indian forces occupied Alcatraz Island in 1969.
Jonathan Winters, 87-years-old when he died in 2011, may not have had the consistently high-profile celebrity career that his acolytes, like Robin Williams and Jim Carrey, and to a lesser extent Gallagher and Carrot Top, may have enjoyed. However, without Winters’ unique comedy stylings, rapid-fire improvisation and prop comedy would probably not have been explored to such an extent by these comedians.
He became successful without resorting to foul language, but by relating to the average person, like those he grew up with in Ohio. He was also married to the same woman for 60 years until her death in 2009 of breast cancer. Jonathan Winters was an American original, the likes of which we will probably never see again.
Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.