By Lawrence Toppman
April 11, 2013
More than a dozen funny people died Thursday night at the home of an 87-year-old man in Montecito, Calif.
Jonathan Winters passed away – of natural causes, says his Internet site – taking with him Maude Frickert, Elwood P. Suggins, B.B. Bindlestiff, Princess Leilani-nani (the world’s oldest hula dancer) and Piggy Bladder, football coach for the State Teachers’ Animal Husbandry Institute for the Blind. And others too numerous to mention, partly because they didn’t all have names.
If you’re under 45, you may never have heard of these characters – or Winters himself, unless you show “Smurfs” movies to your kids. (He’s the voice of Papa Smurf.) But Jonathan Harshman Winters Jr. influenced almost every major comedian from the late 1960s through the 1980s.
Cross-dressing? He donned women’s gear before Flip Wilson. An ever-changing array of weird voices and facial expressions? Robin Williams, a lifelong fan, picked those up from him. (And eventually got him a role on “Mork and Mindy,” as Mork’s son.) Odd little bits of poetry and cosmic wordplay? George Carlin killed with those, but Winters got there first. Before it was common for comedians to play dramatic roles, Winters did a marvelous job as an eternally damned pool player on “The Twilight Zone” in 1961.
Prior to Winters’ anarchic, often improvised TV appearances in the 1950s, comedians usually told jokes about wives, analysts or mothers-in-law. (The last survivor of that ancient line was Rodney “I don’t get no respect” Dangerfield.)
Winters opened doors. Actually, he knocked them down with bull-like force: You literally never knew what might come out of his mouth. (He may not have, either.) He didn’t deliver one-liners so much as one-offs, uniquely bizarre people he invented and sometimes cast aside just as quickly.
Though he didn’t curse, he liked to shock audiences with frank remarks, often delivered through the pursed lips of grandmotherly Maude or effete couturier Lance Loveguard. Before Sam Kinison or Andrew Clay, he unsettled people who didn’t know quite how to take his remarks.
Charlotte tea merchant Wayne Powers grew up in Mamaroneck, Long Island, near the house Winters dubbed “Winterset.” (He named it after Maxwell Anderson’s tragic play, perhaps aptly for a comedian whose dark side led him for a while into alcoholism.)
They formed a lifelong, cross-generational friendship – Winters wrote liner notes for Powers’ CD of popular music – and Powers knew the intelligent, curious man who collected a complete set of presidential signatures and prowled flea markets for antiques. Even there, Powers says, “he’d find a sailor hat or a weird pair of glasses on a shelf and put them on and do 15 minutes while a crowd collected. Then he’d say, ‘Why didn’t you get me away from all those people?’ ”
One of Powers’ anecdotes is telling: If you went into the bathroom at Winterset and closed the door, you were facing a large portrait of the owner and the words “Our John.”
Before Winters, most comedians wanted audiences to love them. He introduced the idea that the main thing was to be unpredictable and unignorable – and he always was.