Jonathan Winters in a press photo
A pioneer of improvisational stand-up, Jonathan Winters invented the art form of being several characters at once, all bantering back and forth at each other. "Jonathan's the source for me, the guy that made it all possible," said Robin Williams. "He was my Comedy Buddha."
Before doing comedy in Greenwich Village at New York City nightclubs, Jonathan Winters was born in Ohio, eventually settling in Toluca Lake right around the corner from Bob Hope and Bob’s Big Boy Burbank.
Winters between commerical takes for Bob's Big Boy
His style of comedy, off-camera antics, and free-floating sense for never really belonging are all on display in these outtakes from a Bob's Big Boy TV Commercial (1972).
Jack Paar and Jonathan Winters
His early appearances on The Jack Paar Tonight Show are still regarded as some of his finest work. "The Stick," "They Know in the Forest," and many others were groundbreaking. "If you ask me who are the 25 most funny people I know,” Paar would later quip, "I would say, 'Here they are: Jonathan Winters.'"
Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters
He also made regular appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, even hosting it on occasion. Carson liked Winters’ character “Maude Frickert” so much he stole the act and called it "Aunt Blabby." He would regularly talk to Carson about his drinking problems and going "back to the zoo." Winters said he spent eight months in a psych hospital. He was one of the first celebrities to go public about his mental health issues.
Robby Krieger, guitarist for The Doors, recalls their decision to do a television appearance, “We did The Jonathan Winters Show ‘cuz he’s crazy.” Performances of “Moonlight Drive” and “Light My Fire” were taped for a later broadcast. While playing live at Winterland days later, The Doors had a TV wheeled on stage, stopped playing, and watched themselves on the live TV broadcast of The Jonathan Winters Show (1967).
Jonathan Winters as Lennie Pike
Winters' biggest silver screen appearance was probably as "Lennie Pike" in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) with Bob’s Big Boy Burbank Hall-of-Famer, Mickey Rooney. He impersonated “John Wayne on the Moon” and was the voice of Grandpa Smurf (1986-89, 2011, 2013). Winters ranks #18 on Comedy Central's 100 Greatest Standups of All Time and in 1999 was awarded the second Mark Twain Prize (for American Humor) after none other than the great Richard Pryor.
Winters is so good at conjuring up a scene in the mind of an audience, it's no surprise he's an accomplished painter too. He's sold work to the likes of Bob's Big Boy Burbank Hall-of-Famer Bob Hope and Alice Cooper. He even published a book of his paintings called Hang Ups (1988) with an introduction from the legendary watercolorist Dong Kingman.
“I was always an observer,” Jonathan said, “Even as a child, I could be satisfied to sit in a car for 3 hours and just look at the street go by while my mother went shopping.” This mantra of looking at everything around you — he found the best preparation to be a comedian.
“I was fighting for the fact you could be funny without telling jokes.”
Following his death of natural causes in 2013 at the age of 87, fans placed flowers on Jonathan Winters' star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6290 Hollywood Blvd.
Jonathan’s ’62 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud II