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Groundbreaking improv comic Jonathan Winters dies

Saturday - 4/13/2013, 4:16am  ET

FILE - This May 6, 1997 file photo shows comedian Jonathan Winters posing at a hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. Winters, whose breakneck improvisations inspired Robin Williams, Jim Carrey and many others, died Thursday, April 11, 2013, at his Montecito, Calif., home of natural causes. He was 87. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, file)

JOHN ROGERS
Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Jonathan Winters, the cherub-faced comedian whose breakneck improvisations and misfit characters inspired the likes of Robin Williams and Jim Carrey, has died. He was 87.

The Ohio native died Thursday evening at his Montecito, Calif., home of natural causes, said Joe Petro III, a longtime friend. He was surrounded by family and friends.

Winters was a pioneer of improvisational standup comedy, with an exceptional gift for mimicry, a grab bag of eccentric personalities and a bottomless reservoir of creative energy. Facial contortions, sound effects, tall tales -- all could be used in a matter of seconds to get a laugh.

"Jonathan Winters was the worthy custodian of a sparkling and childish comedic genius. He did God's work. I was lucky 2 know him," Carrey tweeted on Friday.

On Jack Paar's television show in 1964, Winters was handed a foot-long stick and he swiftly became a fisherman, violinist, lion tamer, canoeist, U.N. diplomat, bullfighter, flutist, delusional psychiatric patient, British headmaster and Bing Crosby's golf club.

"As a kid, I always wanted to be lots of things," he told U.S. News & World Report in 1988. "I was a Walter Mitty type. I wanted to be in the French Foreign Legion, a detective, a doctor, a test pilot with a scarf, a fisherman who hauled in a tremendous marlin after a 12-hour fight."

The humor most often was based in reality -- his characters Maude Frickert and Elwood P. Suggins, for example, were based on people Winters knew growing up in Ohio.

A devotee of Groucho Marx and Laurel and Hardy, Winters and his free-for-all brand of humor inspired Johnny Carson, Billy Crystal, Tracey Ullman and Lily Tomlin, among many others. But Williams and Carrey are his best-known followers.

"First he was my idol, then he was my mentor and amazing friend. I'll miss him huge. He was my Comedy Buddha. Long live the Buddha," Williams said in a statement Friday.

Williams helped introduce Winters to new fans in 1981 as the son of Williams' goofball alien and his earthling wife in the final season of ABC's "Mork and Mindy."

The two often strayed from the script.

"The best stuff was before the cameras were on, when he was open and free to create," Williams once said. "Jonathan would just blow the doors off."

Carson, meanwhile, lifted Winters' Maude Frickert character almost intact for the long-running Aunt Blabby character he portrayed on "The Tonight Show."

"Beyond funny. He invented a new category of comedic genius," comedian Albert Brooks tweeted Friday.

In other Twitter posts, Richard Lewis called Winters "the greatest improvisational comedian of all time" and Roseanne Barr added "a genius has vacated this realm."

Winters' only Emmy was for best-supporting actor for playing Randy Quaid's father in the sitcom "Davis Rules" (1991). He was nominated again in 2003 as outstanding guest actor in a comedy series for an appearance on "Life With Bonnie."

He also won two Grammys: One for his work on "The Little Prince" album in 1975 and another for his "Crank Calls" comedy album in 1996.

"I knew him for 55 years and he's always been silly, every moment of his life," veteran announcer Gary Owens, who collaborated with Winters on four comedy albums, recalled warmly Friday in an interview with the AP.

He spoke by phone with him just two days ago, Owens said, and although frail, Winters still broke into a routine in which he was being pecked in the head by a pet peregrine falcon he claimed to keep by his bed.

Winters received the Kennedy Center's second Mark Twain Prize for Humor in 1999, a year after Richard Pryor.

In later years, he was sought out for his changeling voice, and he contributed to numerous cartoons and animated films. He played three characters in the "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" movie in 2000.

The Internet Movie Database website credits him as the voice of Papa in the forthcoming "The Smurfs 2" film.

He continued to work almost to the end of his life, and to influence new generations of comics.

"No him, no me. No MOST of us, comedy-wise," comic Patton Oswalt tweeted Friday.

Winters made television history in 1956 when RCA broadcast the first public demonstration of color videotape on "The Jonathan Winters Show."

The comedian quickly realized the possibilities, author David Hajdu wrote in The New York Times in 2006. He soon used video technology "to appear as two characters, bantering back and forth, seemingly in the studio at the same time. You could say he invented the video stunt."

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