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Jonathan Winters: 1925-2013
April 12, 2013  | By Bill Brioux  | 2 comments

"If Jonathan Winters is ever accused of anything, he's got the perfect alibi," Jack Paar once told his audience. "He was someone else at the time."

Winters was a wonder on television, unlike any other comedian in that he never told jokes, he just inhabited characters. Not crazy, made up characters either, but astoundingly real, three dimensional beings with back stories and front stories. Folks you could recognize even as they sprang from Winters' nimble mind.

Seeing him on a talk show like Paar's or Steve Allen's or Johnny Carson's Tonight or on Dean Martin's variety show or The Hollywood Squares was always a trip to somewhere unexpected. He was the ultimate late night talk show guest because he was so gifted and unpredictable, and continued to make appearances with David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel and Craig Ferguson.

There are already headlines circulating out there on Facebook that it's a sad, sad, sad, sad, world now that Winters, who died Thursday, has passed away at 87. Winters was one of many of the TV and film comedians crammed into Stanley Kramer's marathon misfire It's A Mad, Mad Mad Mad World (1963), but he's better in Norman Jewison's more interesting 1966 Cold War comedy The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.

Others know him best as the odd alien son in the final season of Mork & Mindy (left). Robin Williams was a big fan and thrilled to have him in his playpen, although the collaboration held more promise than it delivered.

Fact was, Winters was a sore thumb in scripted comedy, no matter how much leeway he had to improvise in his roles. His world was inside his head and he really only shone in situations where he could tap into it as a single.

He did this in many TV ad campaigns — most memorably for Good Humor ice cream, Hefty Bags and Wendys — where he seemed to delight as a commercial spokesman and deconstruct the whole process all at the same time.

I saw him at a couple of TCA press tours, one way back in the early '90s when he was starring in the short-lived Randy Quaid sitcom David Rules (right). He later appeared at a PBS or HBO session, I honestly can't remember which. He was much older and less energetic by then, and the sadness he always held at bay in those early appearances seemed more present.

Older critics still held him in awe, aware of all that he did, and humbled by the fact that he was that rarest of TV stars — an original. One of those veteran critics, Ken Tucker, does a wonderful job remembering Jonathan Winters at The Daily Beast.

Read more by Bill Brioux at TV Feeds My Family.

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He was just brilliant. A manic comic, both in his performances and, apparently, in real life. Just an incredibly funny, talented man. We will never see the likes of his improv again. Amazingly, he never felt it necessary to stoop to the lowest common denominator in his work. There wasn't anything he did that wasn't G-rated, and yet it was flat out hilarious. You would laugh until you cried. Thanks for this tribute to a real genius.
Apr 14, 2013   |  Reply
A telling word from Paar:"My friend."The years of Winters' reported hospitalization occured during Paar's reign but during private darknesses, Paar kept the door open for Winters,providing a place to perform and a paycheck.
The Ferguson interview is also interesting.Rip the question cards up,we're going to wing it-the way that Jonathan needed.Leno and Fallon coludn't handle such few candid minutes unless there were a dozen writers and props to coax the comedy out of the segment and leave the pathos behind.That is why Ferguson can pick up the mantle of Allen,Paar and Carson,while Leno and Fallon cannot.
Winters will be missed.Patton Oswald said:"No him,no me.No MOST of us."
Apr 14, 2013   |  Reply
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