Apr 13

Remembering Jonathan Winters

Jonathan Winters in a 1998 provided photograph.

Jonathan Winters in a 1998 provided photograph.

There is a little less laughter in the world. Jonathan Winters a brilliantly inventive force of comedy passed away yesterday, April 11, 2013 at the age of 87. The San Luis Obispo film festival honored veteran director Stanley Kramer and friend Jonathan Winters came up from his Montecito home for the celebration. Winters was one of the stars of his comic masterpiece “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” Here is the story from October 29, 1998:

Jonathan Winters to liven up film festival
By Teresa Mariani

Don’t expect Maude Frickert to show up at the film festival tonight.
Pioneer comedian Jonathan Winters is coming for the premiere, yes. But he’s not bringing Maude.
Winters’ signature little-old-lady character has been retired.
“Let’s just say ‘shelved,’ ” a quiet Winters said in his deep baritone voice.
Winters will be at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival gala tonight, helping to present an award to veteran director and personal friend Stanley Kramer. It was Kramer who gave Winters his first movie role, in the comedy “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World,” playing tonight at the Fremont Theater.
As Winters fans know, Frickert made frequent appearances on TV comedy shows during the 1960s — back when just about the only other comedian in drag was Flip Wilson, in his incarnations as Geraldine.
Maude could be grumpy. Maude could be mischievous. Maude made us laugh. Maude, Winters said, was actually based on a real person.
“I got her from an aunt that I had back in Ohio,” Winters said. “She was a real hip old lady who taught me how to play poker.”
Did his way cool, real-life aunt like seeing her nephew up on TV in a wig and a dress, doing imitations of her?
“I think she did,” Winters said with affection in his voice. “I think she got a kick out of it.”
So did Winters, for a while. Before Dana Carvey dreamed up the uptight Church Lady for Saturday Night Live, America was laughing at the definitely more mischievous Maude, all over TV shows.
“I got a lot of mileage out of Maude,” Winters said. “It was a real fun run.”
So why is she shelved?
“Well,” he said, “I got tired of wearing that dress. When you’re there in a dress, and lipstick, and women’s shoes, and women’s underwear, you start to wonder how long you want to do this.”
He chatted on a bit longer, completely serious, about the perils of women’s dress before gently letting on, with a chuckle, “I really wasn’t in women’s underwear. I didn’t do that.”
But he really did get tired of being Maude, and he really did put away his wig and little old lady dresses. “You have to decide whether you’re going to sit on the bus and knit, or wait for the next stop and get off,” he explained.
Frickert isn’t the only one of Winters’ alternate identities: from squinty country mechanics to Indian chiefs to a cook at one of the worst country diners on the planet, Winters has tons of them. Along with a comic style that’s been described as ground-breaking, bizarre, wacky, or just plain silly.
Winters started out as a soldier, not a comic. He joined the Marine Corps at 17, just in time to see service in the South Pacific during World War II. He came back to his native Ohio afterward, went to school, and met and married his wife, Eileen.
The couple now live in Santa Barbara, and have two children and five grandchildren. It was Eileen who encouraged Winters to enter a local talent show in Ohio in the 1940s. He won it, taking home a wristwatch. That led to a job as a morning DJ at an Ohio radio station in 1946, then a job on Ohio television. Then in 1953, Winters headed to New York, where he started working in comedy nightclubs.
He soon jumped to spots on the big late night TV talk shows of the 1950s, and then went on to film and TV roles. Winters had three of his own TV variety comedy shows, in the 1950s and 1960s, had major roles in seven 1960s films, and continued to appear in movies and TV shows throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.
His latest was a spot in the movie “The Shadow,” with Alec Baldwin.
Winters, 73, said he’d love to keep working in movies if the scripts and storylines were ones he’d like.
His best role, he thinks, was in “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.” It was also Winters’ first movie role. Director Kramer called Winters out of the blue and asked him to be in the movie. “He was in California and I was back East, and I leaped at it. I worked on that picture for over six months, and it was probably the best picture I’ve ever done. It was a big thrill,” he said.
Though the movie does have plenty of slapstick and some car chases, it’s different from a lot of comedies today, Winters said.
“My major objection to a lot of Hollywood movies today is all of the rolling cars on fire,” he said. “We wonder why we have so much violence, but I think some movies promote violence. … I guess they think that’s what makes money. I have a hard time figuring out what audiences want these days.”
Though his comedy has made people laugh for nearly 30 years now, Winters said he’d like to be cast in a serious role: “I’d like to do a good dramatic thing.” He did a screen test once for the spot of character Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” and he’s trying to get the film copy.
“I’d like to see what that looks like,” Winters said.
An angst-ridden salesman may be a big change from Maude Frickert or the oversized “baby” Mearth, son of Mork (Robin Williams) and Mindy (Pam Dawber) on the beloved “Mork and Mindy” TV show of the early 1980s. But it’s what Winters wants to do.
“Even Robin (Williams) is doing more serious things these days than comedy, if you notice,” Winters said.
It’s not that Winters didn’t enjoy all his comedy roles — or his time on TV in the late 1970s and early 1980s working with Williams. “I worked (on “Mork and Mindy”) for a year and a half. And it was fun to work with him,” Winters said of Williams. “He is quite a talent. But it wasn’t exactly my dream role.”
Even though he’s still looking for it, Winters isn’t quite sure what his dream role would be. It probably wouldn’t involve wearing women’s clothes, or doing a car crash chase scene.
Winters laughed, and said he just knows he needs to snag his dream role soon. “Most of the people running the industry these days are 25 or 36,” he said. “When you’re 73, like me, around here they think it’s time to put you out to pasture. Or maybe on the side of the freeway.”

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