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Jonathan Winters, RIP

By Rich Heldenfels Published: April 12, 2013

The Ohio native, comedian and actor has died, according to his website (which is here.). An Associated Press story is here. The New York Times's is here.Below, I have posted a piece I wrote about Winters in 2000 because, frankly, I can't describe him any better now than I did then.

Here goes:  

Keeping track of a Jonathan Winters monologue is like chasing a runaway balloon. Sometimes you grasp the string right away. Other times, just when you think things are under control, it dips or turns or floats somewhere you can't even reach.
And still you follow along, if only because it's so pretty.
Winters, who grew up in Springfield and got his earliest breaks in Dayton and Columbus, doesn't even follow wardrobe conventions. At a recent press conference in Pasadena, Calif., he wore a baseball cap with an O on the front -- "not for Oregon, for Ohio," he explained -- and a pink shirt covered by a long white lab coat with a Ringling Bros. logo on the back.
"I just wanted to wear a lab coat," the 75-year-old comic said. He had a better explanation for his cane.
"People ask me, wherever I go, 'What's the matter with your back? Is it your leg?' No. I'm afraid," he said. "This appears to be wood. It's cast iron. So, if I see a man trying to get into my car, maybe he's made a mistake."
Then he was off into musings, facial gyrations and a hodgepodge of voices while talking about his emotional problems, changes in humor, Christianity and a chance meeting years ago with evangelist Billy Graham. And that was before he'd been asked a question.
But that's Winters. Canton's Jack Paar, who regularly featured Winters on his show, once called Winters the 25 funniest people he knew. His artistry flowed with mixed results at the Television Critics Association press conference. It's evident again and again in Jonathan Winters: On the Loose, a PBS special including vintage clips of Winters on television along with interviews with Winters, his friend Robin Williams and others.
The special has a low-budget quality. There's nothing from his work on Mork & Mindy, for example, because the studio wanted more money than the producers would pay. But there's plenty of good stuff, too, enough to justify a little work in finding it. Buckeye connections notwithstanding, WVIZ (Channel 25) is running it at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 26; WNEO/WEAO (Channels 45/49) has no plans to air it.
The special showcases Winters as inspired comedian but also as a devoted father and as a man who's battled the bottle and had a nervous breakdown.
His upbringing wasn't easy, either. He can't seem to mention his father without mentioning booze. "My dad was drunk, and I was about 7," one story begins.
As for his mother, well, Winters remembers getting out of the Marines after World War II, and finding that she had given away his toys. (An avid collector, Winters noted that some of them are worth $3,500 today.) He asked his mother why he wasn't at least told first. She said, "How did we know you were going to live?'
"It's not all hugs," Winters added.
The special also shows Winters at work, and clips going back to the '50s make clear why someone like Winters has a hard time fitting into today's TV landscape. He took his time, harder to do in the more tightly scheduled TV of today, and he didn't fit a niche, mixing impressions with sound effects, odd characters and just plain jokes. His flights of comedy are likely to land anywhere.
It was tough to find people willing to play Winters' game. He said he was fired from an early-morning radio show in Dayton because he would joke around, or pretend to interview characters he'd made up. The station, he said, had three rules: "Do the time, do the temperature and put on Nat King Cole."
"Well, I forgot about the time, I forgot about the temperature, but I never forgot about Nat King Cole," he said.
Still, some TV stars found a way to work with Winters. Paar and singer Andy Williams frequently had Winters on their TV shows, and their approach largely consisted of getting out of his way.
"Letting my ego get in the way just momentarily, I felt rather at ease because I knew they couldn't do what I could do," Winters said at the press conference. "That always gives you an upper hand, if you've got a little ammunition."
Steve Allen was also a welcoming host, but Winters' favorite was Johnny Carson.
The Tonight Show star would simply stop by Winters' dressing room before a telecast and ask what Winters wanted to talk about. Winters might say growing up on a farm. On the air, then, Carson would just ask Winters about farm life and let him go.
"Leno wouldn't be able to do this," Winters said. "Or Letterman."
Winters felt similarly constrained when he appeared on the sitcom Davis Rules in 1991-92. Playing the father of a harried principal played by Randy Quaid, Winters liked some things -- with Quaid and co-star Bonnie Hunt, and winning an Emmy for supporting actor in a comedy series. ("Unfortunately, I didn't think I was going to get the Emmy," he said. "I was having ribs with a bunch of out-of-work actors in Sherman Oaks.")
But he hasn't starred in a sitcom since "because of the writing."
"I'm not a troublemaker," he said. "I didn't come in bombed or full of drugs or sauce. I came in to work and do a show and have some fun." But he'd get lines he didn't think worked and beg the writers, "You got to give me an opportunity to have some fun."
"On Friday (before taping), the head writer says . . . 'Just do the lines. If it doesn't work we'll sweeten it,' " Winters said. "And that's where we are. Canned laughter. You don't get canned laughter in the movies. You don't get canned laughter, certainly, in the theater. You get it in the sitcoms."
So where does Winters go for real laughs? Laurel and Hardy still get to him. So does the old Fox sketch-comedy series In Living Color. And he has plenty to do. He's been working on an autobiography, for one thing. And he knows that his life could have been a lot harder.
"A kid asked me not long ago, 'How much emphasis do you put on success? How have you handled success?' And I said, 'Don't worry about success. Worry about failure.'
"Success is hard to handle because so much is expected of you. But gosh, it's kind of neat. You go to a bank and they really smile and go, 'Ah, here he is again?' "

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