Comedy Legend Jonathan Winters Dies at 87

Slate's Culture Blog
April 12 2013 3:20 PM

Comedy Legend Jonathan Winters Dies at 87

Jonathan Winters in 2005.

Photo by Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images.

Jonathan Winters, who helped to make improvisation a major part of mainstream American comedy, died today at his home in California at age 87. Though he has been less visible in recent years, the great master of voices and characters never fully retired; his voice will be heard this summer in Smurfs 2, a full 60 years after he first moved to New York City to make it big.

Winters supposedly came to the big city with just $56.46 in his pocket, after getting his start in radio and local TV in his native Ohio. He moved in with friends in Greenwich Village, and by 1956 he had a 15-minute variety program on NBC, The Jonathan Winters Show, which aired every Tuesday and consisted of an opening monologue, a musical act, and then a closing sketch.


Many of Winters’ popular characters were rooted in his Midwestern childhood, among them Elwood P. Suggins, B. B. Bindlestiff, football coach Piggy Bladder, and his most popular character, Maude Frickert, who, according to the New York Times, “was inspired by an elderly aunt who let him drink wine and taught him to play poker when he was 9 years old.”

In 1959, Winters was hospitalized for two weeks after a mental breakdown onstage at the Hungry I in San Francisco. A story went around that he had climbed atop a boat’s mast near Fisherman’s Wharf and begun shouting things, but Winters debunked that story in a 2011 interview on the WTF podcast with Marc Maron. Two years after that brief hospitalization, Winters spent a much longer period in a psychiatric hospital in 1961. Much later he was diagnosed as manic-depressive.

In the meantime, he put out, in 1960, the first of his many comedy albums. A few years later, a standout performance in 1963’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World added to his growing celebrity. Winters was a popular guest on several TV shows, including The Jack Paar Show, where he showed off his gift for improvisation. “Do something with the stick,” Paar said, in one famous bit. Winters, as the AP put it this afternoon, “swiftly became a fisherman, violinist, lion tamer, canoeist, U.N. diplomat, bullfighter, flutist, delusional psychiatric patient, British headmaster and Bing Crosby’s golf club.”

In the early 1980s, one of Winters’ many comic acolytes, Robin Williams, introduced him to a new generation of fans by casting him on his show, Mork & Mindy. Winters, nearly 60, played Mearth, the comically old-looking son of Williams’ eponymous alien, Mork.

Winters largely retreated from the spotlight over the last couple of decades, spending much of his time at home painting. But he continued to record new albums, including some more serious, reflective records. Winters’ wife, Eileen, died in 2009, after more than 60 years of marriage.

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.


Sports Nut

Grandmaster Clash

One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company


The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.


How to Order Chinese Food

First, stop thinking of it as “Chinese food.”

Scotland Is Inspiring Secessionists Across America

You Shouldn’t Spank Anyone but Your Consensual Sex Partner

Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Sept. 18 2014 10:42 AM Scalia’s Liberal Streak The conservative justice’s most brilliant—and surprisingly progressive—moments on the bench.
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
Sept. 18 2014 12:30 PM “Alt-Ac” to the Rescue? Humanities Ph.D.s are daring to enjoy their “regular” jobs, and the definition of academic success is changing. Sort of.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 12:03 PM The NFL Opines on “the Role of the Female”
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
Sept. 18 2014 12:37 PM The Movies May Have Forgotten About Them, but Black Cowboys Are Thriving
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 10:07 AM “The Day It All Ended” A short story from Hieroglyph, a new science fiction anthology.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 18 2014 7:30 AM Red and Green Ghosts Haunt the Stormy Night
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.