Comedian Jonathan Winters dies at 87

Jonathan Winters photo from MGN

Jonathan Winters photo from MGN

(CNN) — Jonathan Winters, the wildly inventive actor and comedian who appeared in such films as “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and “The Loved One” and played Robin Williams’ son on the TV show “Mork & Mindy,” has died. He was 87.

Winters died Thursday evening of natural causes at his home in Montecito, California,  according to business associate Joe Petro III.

Winters was known for his comic irreverence, switching characters the way other people flick on light switches. His routines were full of non sequiturs and surreal jokes. Williams, in particular, often credited him as a great influence.

Indeed, he was greatly admired by comedians in general and was awarded the Mark Twain Prize — which goes to outstanding humorists — in 1999.

“Genius” was a common touchstone as comedians reacted to Winters’ death.

“R.I.P Jonathan Winters,” tweeted comedian and filmmaker Albert Brooks. “Beyond funny, he invented a new category of comedic genius.”

“Had a great run. Actual genius,” tweeted Kevin Pollak.

“A genius and the greatest improvisational comedian of all time,” tweeted Richard Lewis.

Though he never had a breakout starring role, over the years his appearances on TV shows made him a beloved figure in the entertainment world. He was a favorite guest on “The Tonight Show” — particularly in the early ’60s when Jack Paar hosted it — and turned up on the game show “The Hollywood Squares,” Dean Martin’s celebrity roasts and countless variety shows.

He told the Archive of American Television about the creation of his character Maude Frickert, the sarcastic old lady, who came from a relative he had.

“I decided, having seen a lot of older people, that many of them are shelved — put in retirement homes to rot,” he said. “I decided to (be) a hip old lady” — one who had a wicked sense of humor, the kind of person who was married 12 times and cracked a whip in a ward of cardiac patients.

Other characters included Elwood P. Suggins, B.B. Bindlestiff and Lance Loveguard.

He had a regular role on the final season of “Mork & Mindy,” putting him together with Williams, who played the space visitor Mork from Ork. Winters played Mearth, Mork’s son, who — having hatched from a giant egg — was the size of an adult but had the mind of a child. The attempted pairing of Williams and Winters was expected to create comic fireworks, but the show’s already falling ratings didn’t pick up, and “Mork & Mindy” was canceled in 1982.

Winters showed his range with the occasional dramatic role. In an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” he played a shark-like pool player. In the 1994 film “The Shadow” — with Alec Baldwin as the hero with the ability to cloud men’s minds — he played Baldwin’s police chief uncle.

He was also a prolific recording artist, producing more than a dozen comedy records, including 1960’s “The Wonderful World of Jonathan Winters.”

Winters was born November 11, 1925, in Dayton, Ohio. He developed his talent for characters and voices from a young age. After serving in World War II, he married his wife, Eileen, in 1948 and hoped to become an artist. That career went nowhere, but his wife encouraged him to enter a talent contest. His win there earned him a position as a disc jockey on a local radio station, making up some of his interviewees. Eventually he left for New York, becoming a nightclub comic and earning spots on “The Tonight Show.”

In 1961, Winters suffered a nervous breakdown. He spent eight months in a mental institution and was diagnosed as bipolar.

“It was one of the toughest times in my life,” he told the Archive of American Television.

But when he got out — on April Fools’ Day, 1962 — he almost immediately got a call from director Stanley Kramer, offering him a role in “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” Kramer was one of the most highly regarded directors in Hollywood, known for “The Defiant Ones” and “Judgment at Nuremberg.”

He was reluctant about taking the role until his wife pushed him. “You’d better take it, because you’ll never work again if you don’t take it,” he recalled her saying. In the 1963 film, filled with comedy all-stars, Winters stood out as a truck driver who destroys a gas station.

He was, many agreed, one of a kind.

“The first time I saw Jonathan Winters perform, I thought I might as well quit the business,” tweeted Dick Van Dyke after hearing of Winters’ death. “Because, I could never be as brilliant.”

His wife, Eileen, died in 2009. He is survived by two children and five grandchildren.

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