Jonathan Harshman Winters III (November 11, 1925 – April 11, 2013) was an American comedian, actor, author, and artist. Beginning in 1960, Winters recorded many classic comedy albums for the Verve Records label. He also had records released every decade for over 50 years, receiving 11 nominations for Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album during his career and winning a Grammy Award for Best Album for Children for his contribution to an adaptation of The Little Prince in 1975 and the Grammy Award for Best Spoken Comedy Album for Crank(y) Calls in 1996.
With a career spanning more than six decades, Winters also appeared in hundreds of television show episodes/series and films combined, including eccentriccharacters on The Steve Allen Show, The Garry Moore Show, The Wacky World of Jonathan Winters (1972–74), Mork & Mindy, Hee Haw, and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. He also voiced Grandpa Smurf on The Smurfs (1986–89) and Papa Smurf in The Smurfs (2011). Winters’ final feature film was The Smurfs 2 in 2013, which is dedicated to his memory.
In 1991, Winters earned an Emmy Award for his supporting role in Davis Rules. In 1999, Winters was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. In 2002, he earned an Emmy nomination as a guest star in a comedy series for Life with Bonnie. In 2008, Winters was presented with a Pioneer TV Land Award by Robin Williams.
Winters also spent time painting and presenting his artwork, including silkscreensand sketches, in many gallery shows. Additionally, he authored several books. His book of short stories, titled Winters' Tales (1988), made the bestseller lists.
Winters was born in Bellbrook, Ohio, to Alice Kilgore Rodgers, who later became a radio personality, and her husband Jonathan Harshman Winters II, an insurance agent who later became an investment broker. He was a descendant of Valentine Winters, founder of the Winters National Bank in Dayton, Ohio (now part of JPMorgan Chase). Of English and Scotch–Irishancestry, Winters had described his father as an alcoholic who had trouble holding a job. His grandfather, a frustratedcomedian, owned the Winters National Bank, which failed, as the family’s fortunes collapsed during the Great Depression.
When he was seven, his parents separated. Winters’ mother, in whom he found a comedic mentor, took him to Springfield, Ohio, to live with his maternal grandmother. “Mother and dad didn't understand me; I didn't understand them,” Winters told Jim Lehrer on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer in 1999. “So consequently it was a strange kind of arrangement.” Alone in his room, he would create characters and interview himself. A poor student, Winters continued talking to himself and developed a repertoire of strange sound effects. He often entertained his high-school friends by imitating a race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
During his senior year at Springfield High School, Winters quit school to join the U.S. Marine Corps and served two and a half years in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Upon his return, he attended Kenyon College. He later studiedcartooning at Dayton Art Institute, where he met Eileen Schauder, whom he married on September 11, 1948. He was a brother of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity (Lambda chapter).
Winters’s career started as a result of a lost wristwatch, about six or seven months after his marriage to Eileen in 1948. The newlyweds couldn’t afford to buy another one. Then Eileen read about a talent contest in which the first prize was a wristwatch, and encouraged Jonathan to “go down and win it.” She was certain he could, and he did. His performance led to a disc jockey job, where he was supposed to introduce songs and announce the temperature. Gradually his ad libs, personae, and antics took over the show.
He began comedy routines and acting while studying at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. He was also a local radio personality on WING (mornings, 6 to 8) in Dayton, Ohio, and at WIZE in Springfield, Ohio. He performed as “Johnny Winters” on WBNS-TV inColumbus, Ohio, for two and a half years, quitting the station in 1953 when they refused to give him a $5 raise.
After promising his wife that he would return to Dayton if he did not make it in a year, and with $56.46 in his pocket, he moved to New York City, staying with friends in Greenwich Village. After obtaining Martin Goodman as his agent, he began stand-up routines in various New York nightclubs. His earliest television appearance was in 1954 on Chance of a Lifetime hosted byDennis James on the DuMont Television Network, where Winters again appeared as “Johnny Winters.”
Winters had made television history in 1956, when RCA broadcast the first public demonstration of color videotape on The Jonathan Winters Show. Author David Hajdu wrote in The New York Times (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.”
His big break occurred (with the revised name of Jonathan) when he worked for Alistair Cooke on the CBS Television Sunday morning show Omnibus. In 1957 he performed in the first color television show, a 15-minute routine sponsored by Tums.
From 1959 to 1964, Winters’s voice could be heard in a series of popular television commercials for Utica Club beer. In the ads, he provided the voices of talking beer steins, named Shultz and Dooley. Later, he became a spokesman for Hefty brand trash bags, for whom he appeared as a dapper garbageman known for collecting “gahr-bahj,” as well as “Maude Frickert" and other characters.
Winters recorded many classic comedy albums for the Verve Records label (12), starting in 1960. Probably the best known of his characters from this period is "Maude Frickert,” the seemingly sweet old lady with the barbed tongue. He was a favorite of Jack Paar, who hostedThe Tonight Show from 1957 to 1962, and appeared frequently on his television programs, even going so far as to impersonate then–U.S. president John F. Kennedy over the telephone as a prank on Paar.
However, Winters had a dramatic role in the The Twilight Zone episode “A Game of Pool” (episode 3.5 on October 13, 1961). He also recorded Ogden Nash’s The Carnival of the Animals poems to Camille Saint-Saëns’s classical opus.
On The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1962–92), Winters would usually perform in the guise of some character. Johnny Carson often did not know what Winters had planned and usually had to tease out the character’s back story during a pretend interview. Carson invented a character called “Aunt Blabby,” which was similar to and possibly inspired by “Maude Frickert.”
Winters appeared in more than 50 movies and many television shows, including particularly notable roles in the film It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and in the dual roles of Henry Glenworthy and his dark, scheming brother, the Rev. Wilbur Glenworthy, in the film adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One novel. Fellow comedians who starred with him in Mad World, such as Arnold Stang, said that in the long periods while they waited between scenes, Winters would entertain them for hours in their trailer by becoming any character that they would suggest to him.
He later participated on ABC’s The American Sportsman, hosted by Grits Gresham, who took celebrities on hunting, fishing, and shooting trips to exotic places around the world.
Winters made memorable appearances on both The Dean Martin Show and The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast, as well as a regular on The Andy Williams Show. He also performed regularly as a panelist on The Hollywood Squares.
During the late 1960s and early 70s, Winters acted in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966), had a nightlyCBS show called The Jonathan Winters Show from 1967 to 1969, and appeared in Viva Max! (1970). Additionally, he was a regular (along with Woody Allen and Jo Anne Worley) on the Saturday morning children’s television program, Hot Dog in the early 1970s. He also had his own syndicated show called The Wacky World of Jonathan Winters, from 1972 to 1974, the Music Director of which, Van Alexander, was nominated for a 1973 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Music Direction of a Variety, Musical or Dramatic Program.
1980s and 1990s career
Jonathan Winters was a guest star on The Muppet Show in 1980. That same year, he also appeared in I Go Pogo (aka Pogo for President). In 1981 he was a guest on the short-lived comedy series Aloha Paradise.
In the fourth and final season of the sci-fi-styled TV comedy Mork & Mindy, Jonathan Winters (one of Robin Williams’s idols) was brought in as Mork & Mindy’s child, Mearth. Due to the different Orkan physiology, Mork laid an egg, which grew and hatched into the much older Winters. It had been previously explained that Orkans aged “backwards,” thus explaining Mearth’s appearance and that of his teacher, Miss Geezba (portrayed by then-11-year-old actress Louanne Sirota). Mork’s infant son Mearth in Mork & Mindy was created in hopes of improving ratings and as an attempt to capitalize on Williams’s comedic talents. Winters had previously guest-starred in Season 3, Episode 18, as Dave McConnell, Mindy’s uncle. However, after multiple scheduling and cast changes, Mork & Mindy’s fourth season was already quite low in the ratings and ended up being the show’s last season.
Winters became a regular on Hee Haw during the 1983–84 season. He was later the voice ofGrandpa Smurf from 1986 to 1990 on the television series The Smurfs. Additionally, he did thevoice of Bigelow in the 1985 TV film Pound Puppies, and voice-acted on Yogi's Treasure Huntin 1985, among other voice roles throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
In 1987, Winters was featured in NFL Films' The NFL TV Follies. That same year he publishedWinters' Tales: Stories and Observations for the Unusual.
In 1991 and 1992, he had a supporting role on Davis Rules, a sitcom that lasted two seasons (25 episodes), for which he won an Emmy Award. He played Gunny Davis, an eccentric grandfather who was helping raise his grandchildren after his son lost his wife.
In addition to his live action roles, he was a guest star on The New Scooby-Doo Movies (in an episode where he also voiced an animated version of his “Maude Frickert” character) and as the narrator in Frosty Returns which airs annually aired during the Christmas season. Winters also provided the voice for the thief in Arabian Knight.
In 1994, Winters appeared in a cameo as a fired factory worker in The Flintstones. In an interesting role reversal, he was the serious-minded secular police chief and uncle of the character Lamont Cranston (played byAlec Baldwin) in The Shadow. That same year he voiced Stinkbomb D. Basset in the episode “Smell Ya Later” on Animaniacs.
Winters received 11 Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album nominations during his career, and won the Grammy Award for Best Spoken Comedy Album for Crank(y) Calls in 1996.
In 1996, Winters played himself in Bloopy's Buddies, a children’s TV series on PBS designed to teach children about health and nutrition and to encourage them to exercise.
In 1999, he was awarded the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, becoming the second recipient.
Winters had various roles and appeared in numerous television features throughout the early-to mid-2000s. In 2000, Winters appeared in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. In 2003, he appeared in the film Swing.
In 2004, Comedy Central Presents: 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time ranked Winters as the #18 greatest stand-up comedian. In 2005 and 2006, Winters appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live!.
In 2008, Winters was presented with a Pioneer TV Land Award by Robin Williams. That same year, PBS aired Pioneers of Television, and Make ’Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America in 2009, both featuring Winters.
Winters provided the voice of Papa Smurf in the live-action Smurfs film, released in 2011, and reprised the role in the 2013 release of The Smurfs 2 (his final film project).
Winters was originally cast in Big Finish (2014), during pre-production. It is a comedy set in a retirement home. His scheduled role was to appear alongside Jerry Lewis and Bob Newhart.
On February 8, 1960, Winters received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In his interview with the Archive of American Television, Winters reported that he spent eight months in a private psychiatric hospital in 1959 and again in 1961. The comic suffered from nervous breakdowns and bipolar disorder. With an unprecedented frenetic energy, Winters made obscure references to his illness and hospitalization during his stand-up routines, most famously on his 1960 comedy album, The Wonderful World of Jonathan Winters. During his classic “flying saucer” routine, Winters casually mentions that if he weren’t careful, the authorities might put him back in the “zoo,” referring to the institution.
“These voices are always screaming to get out,” Winters told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “They follow me around pretty much all day and night.” Winters was able to use his talents in voice-over roles as a result. A devotee of Groucho Marx and Laurel and Hardy, Winters once claimed, “I've done for the most part pretty much what I intended.” He told U.S. News, “I ended up doing comedy, writing, and painting.... I've had a ball, and as I get older I just become an older kid.”
Winters lived near Santa Barbara, California, and was often seen browsing or “hamming” for the crowd at the antique and gun shows on the Ventura County fairgrounds. He often entertained the tellers and other employees whenever he visited his local bank to make a deposit or withdrawal. Additionally, he spent his time painting and attended many gallery showings, even presenting his art in one-man shows.
On January 11, 2009, Winters’s wife of more than 60 years, Eileen, died at the age of 84 after a 20-year battle with breast cancer.
Winters died of natural causes on the evening of April 11, 2013, in Montecito, California, surrounded by family and friends, at the age of 87. He is survived by his two children, Jay Winters and Lucinda Winters, and five grandchildren.
Fans of Winters placed flowers on his Hollywood Walk of Fame star on April 12, 2013 at 1:30 p.m.
Many comedians, actors, and friends gave personal tributes about Jonathan Winters on social media shortly after his death.Robin Williams posted, “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.” At the 65th Primetime Emmy Awards, Williams would again honor the career and life of Winters.
Comedy style and legacy
A pioneer of improvisational stand-up comedy with a gift for mimicry, impersonations, various personalities, and a seemingly bottomless reservoir of creative energy, Winters was one of the first celebrities to go public with a personal mental illness issue and felt stigmatized as a result. According to Jack Paar, "If you were to ask me the funniest 25 people I've ever known, I'd say, 'Here they are—Jonathan Winters.'" He also said of Winters, "Pound for pound, the funniest man alive."
With his round, rubber-faced, squinty-eyed master of impressions (including ones of John Wayne, Cary Grant, Groucho Marx,James Cagney, and others) and improvisational comedy, Winters became a staple of late-night television with a career spanning more than six decades. With notable honors, many television show, film and comedy circuit appearances, Winters was known to start his stage shows by commanding an applauding audience that had risen to its feet to: “Please remain standing throughout the evening.”
Winters performed a far-ranging series of characters: hillbillies, arrogant city slickers, nerve-shattered airline pilots trying to hide their fear, disgruntled westerners, judgmental Martians, little old ladies, nosy gas station attendants, a hungry cat eyeing a mouse, the oldest living airline stewardess, and more. “I was fighting for the fact that you could be funny without telling jokes,” he told The New York Times, adding that he thought of himself foremost as a writer and less as a stand-up comedian. He said he idolized writers with a gift for humor and singled out the sophisticated absurdity of James Thurber as an influence.
Two of his most memorable characters, cranky granny “Maude Frickert” and bumpkin farmer “Elwood P. Suggins” (“I think eggs 24 hours a day”), were born from his early television routines. Robin Williams once told Playboy why Mr. Winters inspired him. “It was like seeing a guy behind a mask, and you could see that his characters were a great way for him to talk about painful stuff,” he said. “I found out later that they are people he knows—his mother, his aunt. He’s an artist who also paints with words. He paints these people that he sees.”
Onstage and off, Winters was wildly unpredictable. He was often viewed by producersas a liability, and this led to a scattershot, though memorable, film career. On television, his two self-titled variety shows displayed him in dazzling form as a sketch comic and impersonator.
Winters was an inspiration for performers such as Johnny Carson, Billy Crystal,Tracey Ullman, Lily Tomlin, Steve Martin, Jim Carrey, and Jimmy Kimmel. Robin Williams credits Winters as his comedy mentor, and the two co-starred on Mork & Mindy.
In a 1991 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Winters likened the entertainment industry to the Olympics, with actors standing on boxes to receive gold, silver, andbronze medals. Winters claimed, “I think my place is inside the box, underneath the guy receiving the gold medal. They’re playing the national anthem and I’m fondling a platinum medallion.”
- “If your ship doesn’t come in, swim out to meet it.”
- “I couldn’t wait for success, so I went ahead without it.”
- “Nothing is impossible. Some things are just less likely than others.”