One of America’s greatest comedians, Jonathan Winters, died at 87 on April 11, and even his obituary stimulated laughs.
He wasn’t topical and never got into the politics of the moment. Rather, he was a boy from the Midwest (born in Dayton, Ohio) who created the most vivid impressions of the people he knew growing up. He was easily the most instinctively creative comic of mid-20th- century America.
Robin Williams flatters himself by claiming Winters as an inspiration. Winters had none of Williams’ self-involved performance mania. A young Jim Carrey (not the current, curiously unfunny middle-aged one) adopted Winters’ approach of employing verbal and facial contortions to produce the most amazing sounds and impersonations. But Winters was in a class by himself.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, happy to report that we grew up during Winters’ most productive periods, and enjoyed him often on TV in the various incarnations of The Tonight Show, especially those hosted by Jack Paar.
Yes, Winters appeared in movies in supporting parts as comedians usually did a half-century ago in Hollywood. But his performances lacked the spontaneity of his TV appearances when he elaborately extemporized in front of baffled hosts.
Winters is today best known for appearing in the multi-star casts of Stanley Kramer’s 1963 comedy It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World for United Artists; and Norman Jewison’s The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming, made three years later also for United Artists. Winters was lumped among such luminaries as Spencer Tracy, Ethel Merman, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar and Mickey Rooney in the first; and Carl Reiner, Eva Marie Saint, Alan Arkin and Brian Keith in Russians.
The closest Winters came to stardom was in The Loved One, MGM’s 1965 adaptation of the Evelyn Waugh novel about the California funeral business. Directed by Tony Richardson, the comedian was second-billed behind lead Robert Morse (remember him?) with token appearances from Tab Hunter and Liberace, among others. Definitely worth another look-see.
But it is his supporting role in another movie that most attracts Frank. He refers to actor-director Paul Mazurski’s 1988 satire, Moon Over Parador, starring Richard Dreyfuss, Raul Julia and Sonia Braga. It’s about an actor (Dreyfuss) in a fictional South American country pressed into service impersonating the indisposed local dictator.
Winters has a small part as the local CIA man married too many years to a bubbling and bumbling middle aged wife. A solid, subtle performance from a good actor, who was also a great comedian.
He is pictured above with Robin Williams and Pam Dawber on the TV show Mork and Mindy.
Jonathan Winters – R.I. P.