LOS ANGELES — Comedian Jonathan Winters, whose manic improvisational genius never seemed to take a rest, has died at the age of 87 after a more than 50-year career in stand-up, on television and in film.
The burly, moon-faced Winters, a major influence on contemporary comedians such as Robin Williams and Steve Martin, died on Thursday of natural causes at his Montecito, Calif., home, surrounded by family and friends, said longtime family friend Joe Petro III.
Winters had standout roles in 1960s comedy films “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and “The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming.”
He also made regular appearances on “The Tonight Show” with hosts Jack Paar and then Johnny Carson, and had his own TV shows “The Jonathan Winters Show” and “The Wacky World of Jonathan Winters” in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Winters’ outlandish riffing style and repertoire of madcap characters made him a leading stand-up performer in the late 1950s but the pressure of being on the road led to a mental breakdown in 1959. He spent time in mental hospitals and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Winters was a comedian who rebelled against telling jokes and entertained in a stream-of-consciousness style that could veer into the surreal.
“Most of us see things three-dimensionally,” Robert Morse, who starred with Winters in the 1965 movie “The Loved One,” once told The New York Times. “I think Jonny sees things 59-dimensionally. Give me a hairbrush and I see a hairbrush. Give Jonny a hairbrush and it will be a dozen funny things.”
Steve Martin said on Twitter on Friday: “Goodbye, Jonathan Winters. You were not only one of the greats, but one of the great greats.”
His characters included Maudie Frickert, the salty old lady with a razor for a tongue, and Elwood P. Suggins, the drawling overall-clad hick who “was fire chief a while back until they found out who was setting the fires.”
Winters joined the U.S. Marine Corps at 17 and fought in the Pacific during World II. After the war he returned to his native Ohio, attended art school and married Eileen Schauder.
At her urging he entered a talent contest, which led to a show on a Dayton radio station on which he would create characters and interview them using two voices.
Winters moved to New York and with his many impressions, facial expressions and sound effects, quickly made a reputation in the city’s stand-up comedy clubs, leading to high-profile appearances on television variety shows.
Winters’ career derailed in 1959 when he began crying on stage at a nightclub in San Francisco. He was later taken into custody by police who found him climbing the rigging of a sailboat, saying he was from outer space.
Wrung out from the solitude of the road and stress of performance, Winters spent eight months in a mental facility.
Winters once admitted he felt the need to be “on” at all times — staying on the set after filming was done to entertain the crew, breaking into characters to amuse strangers on an elevator or joking with customers in a store.
“”I was the class clown,” Winters told The New York Times in recalling his high school days. “Other guys had more security, steady dates and all that … I didn’t. They only thing that kept me together was my comedy.”
In 1981 Winters was cast in the sitcom “Mork and Mindy,” teaming him with Williams, an ardent admirer whose gift for off-the-wall improvisation made him the Jonathan Winters of his generation.
Winters won an Emmy in 1991 for his work on the short-lived sitcom “Davis Rules” and was given the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 1999.
Recent work included providing the voice of Papa Smurf in the 2011 live action “The Smurfs” movie, and a sequel due for release in July.
His wife Eileen, with whom he had two children, died in 2009 of breast cancer.