ABC, via Photofest
By ROBIN WILLIAMS
Published: April 15, 2013
My father’s laughter introduced me to the comedy of Jonathan Winters. My dad was a sweet man, but not an easy laugh. We were watching Jack Paar on “The Tonight Show” on our black-and-white television, and on came Jonathan in a pith helmet.
“Who are you?” Paar asked.
“I’m a great white hunter,” Jonathan said in an effete voice. “I hunt mainly squirrels.”
“How do you do that?”
“I aim for their little nuts.”
My dad and I lost it. Seeing my father laugh like that made me think, “Who is this guy and what’s he on?”
A short time later, Jonathan was on Paar again. This time Jack handed him a stick, and what happened next was extraordinary. Jon did a four-minute freestyle riff in which that stick became a fishing rod, a spear, a giant beetle antenna, even Bing Crosby’s golf club complete with song. Each transformation was a cameo with characters and sound effects. He was performing comedic alchemy. The world was his laboratory. I was hooked.
Not only was Jonathan funny on TV, but his comedy albums are also auditory bliss. One of my favorite routines involved a mad scientist who sounded like Boris Karloff. But instead of creating a Frankenstein, he made thousands of little men that he unleashed on the world. His shocked assistant cried out, “What are they looking for?”
The professor replied, “Little women, you fool.”
He also created comic characters like Maude Frickert and the overgrown child Chester Honeyhugger. In one classic pre-P.C.-era routine, he had Maude being molested by a huge farmhand. She protested, “Stop, I’m church people.” After he had his way, he was off to do his chores, and she called out, “Don’t be long.”
Mort Sahl said Jonathan was seen as a great improviser, but to him he was just being himself. He was a rebel without a pause, whether he was portraying the WASP who couldn’t get a decent martini in Mombasa or the cowboy who couldn’t ride a horse and backed out of frame. Jonathan’s wife, Eileen, maybe had the best quote. She said that Jonathan went through his terrible 2’s but that they lasted 20 years.
In 1981, my sitcom “Mork & Mindy” was about to enter its fourth and final season. The show had run its course and we wanted to go out swinging. The producers suggested hiring Jonathan to play my son, who ages backward. That woke me out of a two-year slump. The cavalry was on the way.
Jonathan’s improvs on “Mork & Mindy” were legendary. People on the Paramount lot would pack the soundstage on the nights we filmed him. He once did a World War I parody in which he portrayed upper-class English generals, Cockney infantrymen, a Scottish sergeant no one could understand and a Zulu who was in the wrong war. The bit went on so long that all three cameras ran out of film. Sometimes I would join in, but I felt like a kazoo player sitting in with Coltrane.
On one of his first days on the show, a young man asked Jonathan how to get into show business. He said: “You know how movie studios have a front gate? You get a Camaro with a steel grill, drive it through the gate, and once you’re on the lot, you’re in showbiz.”
No audience was too small for Jonathan. I once saw him do a hissing cat for a lone beagle.
His comedy sometimes had an edge. Once, at a gun show, Jon was looking at antique pistols and a man asked if he was a gun proponent. He said: “No, I prefer grenades. They’re more effective.”
Earlier in his life, he had a breakdown and spent some time in a mental institution. He joked that the head doctor told him: “You can get out of here. All you need is 57 keys.” He also hinted that Eileen wanted him to stay there at least until Christmas because he made great ornaments.
Even in his later years, he exorcised his demons in public. His car had handicap plates. He once parked in a blue lane and a woman approached him and said, “You don’t look handicapped to me.”
Jonathan said, “Madam, can you see inside my mind?”
If you wanted a visual representation of Jonathan’s mind, you’d have to go to his house. It is awe-inspiring. There are his paintings (a combination of Miró and Navajo); baseball memorabilia; Civil War pistols and swords; model airplanes, trains, and tin trucks from the ’20s; miniature cowboys and Indians; and toys of all kinds.
We shared a love of painted military miniatures. He once sent me four tiny Napoleonic hookers in various states of undress with a note that read, “For zee troops!”
But the toys were a manifestation of a dark time in his life. Jonathan was a Marine who fought in the Pacific in World War II. When he came home from the war, he went to his old bedroom and discovered that his prized tin trucks were gone.
He asked his mother what she did with his stuff.
“I gave them to the mission,” she said.
“Why did you do that?”
“I didn’t think you were coming back,” she replied.
Jonathan has shuffled off this mortal coil. So here’s to Jonny Winters, the cherubic madman with a stick who touched so many. Damn, am I going to miss you!