A profile of Jonathan Winters in today's Arts section, which was printed in advance, incorrectly states the year he had a pacemaker installed. It was 1988. (Published 10/17/99)
There's one thing Jonathan Winters wants you to know right away, even before you've moved beyond the tiled entrance foyer of his house: He's not crazy. Moments after the introductory handshake, he launches into a many-voiced shtick alternately describing, making fun of and setting the record straight on his long-discussed mental state. It used to be called manic-depression, what he has. Now it's bipolar disorder. It keeps being upgraded to sound more respectable, he jokes. "Yes, I've been to both poles -- arctic and antarctic." Sure, he had two breakdowns -- but that was 40 years ago. Nothing since. It's not just the lithium, either; it's finding out what's important in life -- raising your kids, enjoying your home life, reconciling with the ghosts of your parents.
Thanks, but we had planned on asking about Maude Frickert and the stable of characters that made Winters a four-decade eminence in American comedy. We wanted to ask about "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World" and his many other films. Maybe a question or two about Robin Williams and contemporary comics who took their cue from Winters. Sure, we were going to get around to the "nutty" issue, but we thought we'd sit down first.
It's quite understandable why Winters would come out a little on the defensive. Yes, he is constantly cited as the inspiration for many comics working today--he is the acknowledged father of improvisational stand-up, siring such offspring as Tracey Ullman, Lily Tomlin, Billy Crystal and Williams.
He helped invent the highly personal comic routine that expressed the comedian's inner life in a sly and subtle way. Before Lenny Bruce and Sam Kinison mined their painful pasts for material and expressed it in the first-person monologue, Winters invented characters who voiced his.
In honor of his contribution, Winters will be in Washington Wednesday to receive the Kennedy Center's second Mark Twain Prize for achievement as an American humorist. Richard Pryor took the first award last year.
But Winters, 73, has also become a poster boy for the romantic fine line between genius and insanity. In a business that requires fast and loose labels, Winters got stuck with the "crazy" epitaph years ago. "Oh, yeah. Jon Winters. Genius. But he's, you know . . ."
He's what? What??
Winters wants to know why he's been saddled with a rep for four decades, and it's a fair question. As with his art, he was ahead of his time. Actors today have breakdowns and go on Larry King the next night, it seems. To talk about the breakdown, of course. Kiss, kiss.
"This is something I've never quite shaken. There are bigger stars than me with all kinds of coke problems, sauce problems, guys that are married four, five times," he says. "Then they put them in picture after picture."
He asks, rhetorically:
"Why should I have to go through my life auditioning and proving I'm sane?"
That's how Winters comes at you: all at once. Williams has claimed Winters as his mentor. ("I told Robin, 'Don't call me your mentor. People back in Ohio don't know what that means. Call me your idol,' " Winters deadpans.) So think of talking to Winters as something like talking to Williams, only at 45 rpm instead of 78 rpm. Winters is slower now, his voice a low grumble, spiced with a Tabasco splash of sarcasm and outrage. He is no longer the Gatling gun mounted in Johnny Carson's chair, but he's still got some ammo left.
He and his wife of 51 years, Eileen, live here in the low foothills of the San Rafael Mountains, just down the Pacific coast from Santa Barbara. His children, Jonathan IV and Lucinda, live nearby, with five children between them. Walk out of Winters's living room through French doors and you're on a patio, overhung by trellises and red flowering shrubs. Down a green, sloping lawn is the front gate, a sliding iron affair, guarding the property. Straight out toward the horizon is a green ridge and beyond that, a fine view of the ocean. Inside, a lazy gray cat pads around the kitchen. On cool, clear Southern California nights, the stars are thick. Things are quiet here.
A Comic Impasse
Things have been quiet in Winters's career for the past decade or so.
Twenty, 30 years ago, he appeared in movies, toured for club dates, did TV commercials. He seemed a weekly fixture on Carson. He was big. Now his career has slowed, if not his mind. He reads constantly, devouring news and history, particularly anything to do with Winston Churchill. He'll still do an occasional 35 minutes of stand-up, or voice a cartoon, or take a small part in a movie, but his last regular work was the 1991-92 TV sitcom "Davis Rules," which netted him his only Emmy. He chooses his opportunities well: A 1988 book of short stories, "Winters' Tales," hit the bestseller lists. A 1992 comedy album, "The Wonderful World of Jonathan Winters," won a Grammy.
But he's not often on David Letterman or Jay Leno, and probably not because anybody thinks he's crazy. It's because, first, he hasn't had a recent TV show or movie to publicize, but also he doesn't "get" Letterman and Leno, and, likely, vice versa. Or he may be simply too slow for them now. Or it may be the difference between two eras and two kinds of funny. The difference between history and the present.
A tour around Winters's house displays many icons of the past, besides the occupant. He is surrounded by his era.
Over here is a four-foot-long model of the USS California in a glass case. Signed, framed documents from all of the presidents hang impressively. His "special room" is a virtual armory of Civil War rifles and pistols on two walls; on another, glass-cased autographed baseballs. To Jonathan, From: Ted Williams, Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio.
The walls of a downstairs half-bath are covered with very personal collectibles. There are a couple of checks signed by Orville Wright, issued by Winters National Bank & Trust, which was owned by Jonathan Winters's grandfather; both the Wrights and Winters hail from Dayton, Ohio (though Jonathan grew up in nearby Springfield). There's an odd 1940 letter to a young Jonathan from J. Edgar Hoover, a thank-you for a visit to the FBI director's office.
And here is a black-and-white photograph of Winters on "The Tonight Show." Winters is wearing what appears to be a military band leader's uniform. Carson is laughing so hard that he seems near tears. He has signed it: "Jonathan: You are definitely not funny!"
"Johnny and I, we were on the same frequency," Winters says, sitting in his living room. "Not so with these guys."
"These guys" are Letterman and Leno, the late-night hosts most responsible, along with Conan O'Brien, for keeping celebrities in the public eye nowadays. When Carson went, so, effectively, did Winters. "I found Leno extremely difficult to work with," Winters says.
Not hard to imagine. Though Leno is Carson's heir, his style is different. Carson gladly served as the straight man for Winters's character-driven improvisations; Leno's scripted, punch-line-driven style is less compatible. As for Letterman, it's easy to paint him as just a grouch.
In a way, though, Winters and Letterman might seem a perfect match. Despite the family-safe comedy he performs publicly ("I just don't get these guys with their filthy language," Winters says of today's profane comics), there is a dark edge to his private patois. It's not a hateful shtick. Think of Winters as your grumpy-but-charming grandpa from the Midwest, who fully takes in the world but is nevertheless perplexed and somewhat soured by it. Or think of him as a stand-up version of Evelyn Waugh--a piercing satirist inventing characters merely to expose their lowbrow foolishness.
Maude Frickert is probably Winters's most famous character. The swinging grandma was a gray-bunned libertine whose promiscuous antics made '60s audiences howl. There also was the quack shrink, Dr. Bellenhoffer, and others, from Chester Honeyhugger to King Kwasi to Larry Lech, the leering pervert.
Winters still practices his shtick, using it in real life to take a few pokes at human nature. He recounts to a guest an encounter with yet another wiseacre who, for the one-millionth time, poked a finger at Winters' ample belly and asked, hilariously, "When's the baby due?"
"I told him, 'If it's a boy, we're going to name him Joseph. If it's a girl, we're going to name her Geraldine. If it's what I think it is, a big pile of...we're going to name it after you."
The bit probably wouldn't play too well on Leno.
Characters, Not Caricatures
Winters's many characters sprang from some good advice he got as a young comic. By the mid-'50s, he had left radio deejay and TV jobs in Ohio for New York, where he pounded the pavement looking for gigs alongside such soon-to-be comedic giants as Don Knotts. He had modest success doing celebrity impersonations, such as Boris Karloff. But his big break came when an old show biz guy told him: Stop doing celebrities like every other young comic. Invent characters you know, people you grew up with. Do them.
It paid off. Soon he was a hot rising young comic, a fixture on TV in its early days and a wacky contemporary of Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, Milton Berle and Imogene Coca. Winters became a regular on "The Garry Moore Show," "Here's the Show" and "The Steve Allen Show." He got his own gig, "The Jonathan Winters Show," on NBC in 1956. He toured comedy clubs. He had a wife and two young children. And in 1958, he quit drinking. "At 32, my hands were shaking like this from the sauce," he says, vibrating them. He was drinking a half-gallon of liquor a day.
So he quit. But the anxiety didn't. He exacerbated the situation by downing 12 to 14 cups of coffee and Coke a day. In 1959, he had his first breakdown, in San Francisco. He took two weeks off. Should have taken longer, he now says, because, two years later, he had a second one. This one cost him eight months in a clinic. Since then, he has taken lithium. It's been a long, long time since he had a manic episode, but he remembers what they feel like.
"I felt that I could read into things that weren't there," he says. "It was a form of hallucinating. I would see people staring at me and think, 'Do they know what I'm going through? Are they trying to read my mind?' "
By the mid-'60s, Winters was back in the spotlight. He played a simpleton truck driver in the 1963 film "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World," perhaps Hollywood's last madcap caper. He took a turn as twins in 1965's "The Loved One," the adaptation of Waugh's black novella, called by some critics one of the best comedies of the '60s. There was a part as a deputy in "The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!," the 1966 Cold War spoof. He had a second "Jonathan Winters Show," this time on CBS, from 1967 to 1969.
Then, throughout the '70s, his appearances were pretty much limited to TV specials and the long-running Hefty garbage bag ads, in which he played a wacky "garbologist." As happens to every celebrity at some point, his popularity cooled off.
His big reemergence came in 1981, when he appeared on ABC's "Mork & Mindy" as Mork's son, Mearth. Williams, who played Mork, had been a longtime admirer of Winters and had requested him. In 1992, Williams told Playboy why Winters inspired him:
"It was like seeing a guy behind a mask, and you could see that his characters were a great way for him to talk about painful stuff. I found out later that they are people he knows--his mother, his aunt. He's an artist who also paints with words, he paints these people that he sees."
Family of Origin
Winters was an only child and his parents divorced when he was 7. By his account, his father was an investment broker and an ogre who thrived by putting down his artistic son. Though not as overtly malevolent, his mother, a radio personality, liked to keep the spotlight on herself.
After Winters hit it big, he says, both of his parents became "insanely jealous of my success."
In 1943, spoiling to get out of Springfield, tired of the static from his parents, he joined the Marines. He describes to a guest the goodbye scene on the train platform with his mother by doing a classic Winters multi-character sketch. He begins as the narrator:
"I looked all around the platform, and everyone was going. There were black guys, Jewish guys, Italian guys. There was a black mother there, talking to her son:
" 'I don't know why you worrying about this war. You ain't got no business going to war. This is a honky's war.'
" 'Now, mama. Everybody's going to war. It's the thing to do.'
"Over there's a guy going into the Coast Guard, talking to his mother:
" 'You take care of yourself.'
" 'Don't worry, I'll be hanging out in the Chesapeake Bay. I don't have to go out too far. I'll leave that to the Navy.' "
Then there was Winters and his coolly detached mother.
" 'You better get on the train.' [pause] 'You wouldn't want to miss it.' [pause]
" 'Mother, how about a kiss?' "
Winters ends the story by impersonating his mother, offering her cheek for a goodbye kiss. With that, he was off to Parris Island.
He served on two ships in the Pacific. Most of his buddies from boot camp went to Anzio and died on the bloody Italian beachhead. Winters was lucky. While at sea, he gave his first and only show for servicemen in a talent contest. He won, scoring five gallons of ice cream for his outfit.
After the war, he enrolled in Kenyon College, in Gambier, Ohio, northeast of Columbus. He transferred to Dayton Art Institute, where he studied painting, which led to plenty of abuse from his estranged father. Once, he and a Marine buddy were driving across the West and, fatigued, ran the car off the road. They were broke and Winters, as a last gasp, called his father for help. Again, Winters tells the story in voices. His father is played as a barking authoritarian, sounding somewhat like mean Sgt. Carter from "Gomer Pyle":
"Dad, I crashed the car. I need some money."
"I guess you were drunk!"
"No, I drove 1,000 miles. I fell asleep."
"Okay, goddammit. But I want that money when you get back."
He and his buddy worked odd jobs back across the country to make the money. When he repaid his father, he asked if Winters was "still in art school with all those queers."
Which was nothing compared with the welcome home he got from his mother.
Soon after returning, Winters went up into his mother's attic to rummage for some of his things. In particular, he was searching for the little iron cars he had collected as a boy. Failing to find them, he asked his mother about them. Mother is played as a harpy.
"What were you doing in the attic? I hope you took your shoes off."
"Yes, mother. I was looking in my trunk. I found my ball glove, but where are my toys?"
"You're 20 years old! There's a lot of work to do around here! Toys?! You're 20!"
"But where are they?"
"I gave them to the mission."
"You should have told me. There were some things in there I wanted."
Winters breaks from the dialogue to emphasize the coming punch line: "And now this is the line, she said: 'How did I know you were going to live?' "
A Winter Wish
Winters hasn't the desire to do a weekly TV series anymore, he says. Besides, a pacemaker, implanted last year, reminds him to take it easy. (The electronic heart-regulating device is the result of a collapse in February of that year. When Winters came to, he was being given mouth-to-mouth by a male paramedic. The first thing out of Winters's mouth was: "You're a very attractive man.")
But Winters would like to do one more film. A strong supporting role in a comedy or drama; doesn't matter, as long as it's good. But it may not come, not now. Winters--like so many other improvisationists, such as Tomlin and Martin Short--has always been a solution in search of a problem when it comes to movies. They don't fit Hollywood's molds.
But there's something else as well.
"They give Don Ameche an Oscar and a standing ovation but they don't give him a job," says Timothy Gray, managing editor of Variety, the show business trade paper. "How many other 73-year-olds are working? For better or worse, there's not a lot of action for these people."
So Winters browses the collectibles market in Hollywood on the weekends. And assembles his autobiography. And paints, selling the surrealistic prints to fellow celebrities. And he endures the "blue-hair parties" with his wife--his best friends are still back in Ohio.
And, sometimes, he still has a little fun.
Like last May, when his wife put together a local fashion show for charity. The willowy female models prowled the runway in their pret-a-porter. All went as expected. Until the last model appeared at the end of the runway. It was a devilishly grinning Winters, dressed as the swinging granny Maude Frickert, in her trademark dress, little round glasses and gray wig with the pulled-back bun.
And he brought down the house.
More information is available on the Web at www.kennedy-center.org or by calling 202-467-4600, 1-800-444-1324, TTY 202-416-8524.