Jonathan Harshman Winters III (November 11, 1925 – April 11, 2013)
When the otherwise forgettable The
Fish That Saved Pittsburgh arrived here in 1979, my father was
working the "extra list" at Teamsters Local #249. One afternoon they
received a call from Lorimar Productions, and my dad- who had been told
by a friendly union steward to make certain he was there that day- found
himself with a lucrative temporary gig as Jonathan Winters' chauffeur.
At the end of the shoot, the locals working on the production received
an official "Fish That Saved Pittsburgh" belt buckle, which I still have.
They also received an unpleasant surprise years later, when they learned
Lorimar had never paid payroll taxes to the Feds, which caused my father
and others much grief when they applied for Social Security benefits.
The situation resulted in my Dad's monthly stipend being a few bucks
less than it should have been. But he didn't complain. "I spent three
weeks driving around with Jonathan Winters," he recalled with a smile.
"That was worth it."
"More influential than successful, Mr. Winters circled the comic heavens
tracing his own strange orbit, an object of wonder and admiration to his
peers." - William Grimes, The New York Times
15 of the funniest people on earth died yesterday - and they all lived
inside of Jonathan Winters. -Denis Leary
Bill Cosby was once asked whom he would choose if he had $50 in his
pocket to buy a ticket to see only one stand-up comedian, live, in their
prime. The comic legend barely took a breath before answering, "Jonathan
Winters will make every last one of us stand there in awe."
Winters, who died [April 11] at the age of 87, was a master of voices,
mimicry, and right-field spontaneity. "What I do is verbal paintings,"
he told National Public Radio in 2011. "I paint a picture. Hopefully
you'll see the characters and what they're doing and what they're
For decades after he became famous for his comedy albums, he was a
coveted late-night guest because no one- not the audience, not hosts
like Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, likely not Winters himself- knew what
he was going to do. An evening with Winters on the sofa was can't-miss
television, and a generation of comics that followed him- like Robin
Williams and Jim Carrey- marveled and were inspired by his daring,
Winters often joked about the mental hospital, playing slightly
disturbed characters who belonged to or claimed to have escaped from the
asylum. He was drawing from personal experience. At the height of his
early fame, he had committed himself to a mental hospital and went on to
live with what he diagnosed as bipolar disorder. "I need that pain-
whatever it is- to call upon it from time to time, no matter how bad it
was," he told NPR.
So there was a bit of the tortured genius to him, but his comedy was
rarely dark. It was manic and sly. Cosby compared Winters' talent to
jazz master John Coltrane, a improvisational artist who could inflate
whole stories and characters off a single verbal cue. He was
unstoppable, unpredictable, and inimitable.
(YouTube videos: Jonathan Winters on The Jack Paar Show)
Jonathan Winters quotes:
God is in my head, but the devil is in my pants.
I couldn't wait for success so I went ahead without it.
If God had really intended man to fly, He’d make it easier to get to the
If your ship doesn't come in, swim out to it!
Improvisation is about taking chances, and I was ready to take chances.
Nothing is impossible. Some things are just less likely than others.
Now the freaks are on television, the freaks are in the movies. And it's
no longer the sideshow, it's the whole show. The colorful circus and the
clowns and the elephants, for all intents and purposes, are gone, and
we're dealing only with the freaks.
When you wear so many hats in society, you never know who you are.
That's the beauty of it. Because once you find out who you are, you're
You come into this world, not knowing who you are, and sometimes, if you
live long enough, you go out not knowing who you are.