Jonathan Winters, a pioneer of improvisational standup comedy who inspired the likes of Robin Williams and Jim Carrey, died Thursday evening of natural causes in his Motecito, Calif., home, surrounded by family and friends. He was 87.
Exceptionally gifted in mimicry, the Ohio native was known for his wide variety of eccentric personalities and seemingly endless supply of creative energy. He could get a laugh in a matter of seconds, with just a quick twist of his face, a silly sound effect, or tall tale.
“Beyond funny, he invented a new category of comedic genius,” comedian Albert Brooks tweeted Friday.
A foot-long stick was all it took to get Winters’ creative juices flowing on Jack Paar’s television show in 1964. Within seconds of taking hold of the lackluster prop, Winters transformed into Bing Crosby’s golf club, a delusional psychiatric patient, a fisherman, then a U.N. diplomat, a violinist, and a lion tamer.
"As a kid, I always wanted to be lots of things," Winters told U.S. News & World Report in 1988. "I was a Walter Mitty type. I wanted to be in the French Foreign Legion, a detective, a doctor, a test pilot with a scarf, a fisherman who hauled in a tremendous marlin after a 12-hour fight."
His wit most often was based in reality—his characters Maude Frickert and Elwood P. Suggins, for example, were exaggerated versions of people Winters knew growing up.
A disciple of Groucho Marx and Laurel and Hardy, Winters and his never-know-what-he’ll-do-next brand of humor inspired Johnny Carson, Billy Crystal, Tracey Ullman, and Lily Tomlin, among many others. But Williams and Carrey are his best-known followers.
"He was just a great friend and I was very lucky to be able to work with him for all the years I did," said Joe Petro III, an artist and printmaker who collaborated with Winters for decades on numerous art projects. "We've lost a giant and we're really going to miss him."
Winters’ wife, Eileen, died in 2009. He is survived by two children, Lucinda and Jay.