Jonathan Winters, a towering figure in the history of improvisational comedy, died on Thursday at his home in Montecito, California, at the age of 87.
Winters was born in Dayton, Ohio, and began his broadcasting career in local radio and TV. He moved to New York City in 1953 and began appearing in bit parts on television while honing his standup act in nightclubs. By the late 1950s, Winters was one of the prominent comics in a generation that included Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman and Bob Newhart. And yet Winters was unlike any of them -- and arguably, unlike anyone since. He was known for creating madcap characters, often on the fly, that were relatable while being totally absurd.
“I don’t do jokes,” he once said, as quoted in his New York Times obituary. “The characters are my jokes.”
Winters had Native ancestry, although he was the first to admit that, as a 1/16th Cherokee he was not as Indian as others -- a People Magazine profile from 1976 cites the quip, "If I had a nosebleed, I'd be out of the tribe." Nonetheless he was a passionate supporter of Native causes, and served as honorary chair of the National Congress of American Indians. In 1969, Winters was among the celebrities -- others included Jane Fonda, Anthony Quinn, Marlon Brando, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Dick Gregory -- who visited occupied Alcatraz Island to show support for the Indian action.
Winters was a favorite guest of television show hosts, including Jack Paar, Dean Martin and Johnny Carson. His career as an actor included some 50 films, memorably It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966). He did a memorable stint as the baby child of Robin Williams' Mork on the final season of Mork & Mindy, and he won an Emmy for his portrayal of Randy Quad's father on the sitcom Davis Rules in 1991. He received 11 Grammy nominations for his comedy albums, winning once, for Crank(y) Calls, in 1996.