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Comic Legend Jonathan Winters Dies at 87

April 12, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Pioneering comic Jonathan Winters brought his own brand of wild, improvisational stand-up to television in the 1950s, and continued to perform for nearly five decades. Winters died Thursday at the age of 87. Jeffrey Brown remembers the comedian with a look back at his career and an interview excerpt with Jim Lehrer from 1999.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, we remember Jonathan Winters, a true master of comedy.

JONATHAN WINTERS, Comedian: I did a thing that a lot of us probably would like to do. Maybe a few of us don’t. I don’t know. I will just have to ask you. Did you ever undress in front of a dog?

JEFFREY BROWN: Jonathan Winters performed his pioneering brand of improvisational comedy for nearly five decades. In the process, he inspired a series of stars who followed him, from Billy Crystal to Robin Williams to Jim Carrey, with a madcap ability to transform into a multitude of characters.

JONATHAN WINTERS: What do you want to do?

DEAN MARTIN, Entertainer: I don’t know. What’s your pleasure?

JONATHAN WINTERS: Well, if I told you that, we would be off the air.

JEFFREY BROWN: Born in Dayton, Ohio, Winters studied painting and later served in the Marine Corps in the South Pacific during World War II.

JONATHAN WINTERS: Come on, tiger. I know you’re down there.

Well, we know one thing. He’s armed.

JEFFREY BROWN: He broke onto the national entertainment scene in the 1950s in the early days of television, often appearing on “The Steve Allen Show.”

MAN: One of the biggest figures in the world of comedy, the irresistible imp, Jonathan Winters.

JEFFREY BROWN: He later frequented “The Tonight Show,” before eventually landing his own variety program.

MAN: The one and only Jonathan Winters, ladies and gentlemen.

JEFFREY BROWN: Winters also appeared on the big screen, notably in the 1963 comedy “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”

JONATHAN WINTERS: Now, fellows, you keep this up and I’m going to get sore. I mean it. OK?

JEFFREY BROWN: But with success came a struggle with depression and drinking, and Winters had himself hospitalized for eight months in the early 1960s.

In 1981, he came back to television and a new generation of fans in the comedy series “Mork & Mindy” starring Robin Williams. Eighteen years later, in 1999, Winters became the second recipient of the Kennedy Center’s annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

JONATHAN WINTERS: There’s a lot of things I would like to say. I thought the head would be bigger.

I have played some pretty good-sized pads in my career. I don’t think I have ever played anything this size and this high. They have got chandeliers. My wife said, could we get one?

We live in a trailer.

JEFFREY BROWN: His “Mork & Mindy” co-star was there to pay tribute to the man he called his idol.

ROBIN WILLIAMS, Comedian: And for me, he was the guy that I saw, like I said, make my father laugh. And I went, God, that must be amazing, because my father was a tad stern.

JEFFREY BROWN: The day after being honored, Winters spoke to Jim Lehrer and recalled how his penchant for comedy grew out of his childhood.

JONATHAN WINTERS: Well, I was an only child. I don’t say that with, you know, little tears, and mother and dad didn’t understand me.

I didn’t understand them. So, consequently, it was a strange kind of arrangement. They didn’t understand me. And I would be in my room. Being an only child, I would talk to myself, I would interview myself. The guy would be a general. I would be a war hero or something, whatever I wanted to be.

And it was always, well, what is he doing in there? And I — so I decided, hey, I was working alone. Maybe I ought to try something in the schoolyard.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jonathan Winters died overnight at his home near Los Angeles. He was 87 years old.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hear what Winters had to say about the value of laughter and more online, where you can watch Jim’s full interview.