Jonathan Winters

Jonathan Winters, PBS Pioneers of TelevisonWhen comic Jonathan Winters (1925–2013) was young and working as a deejay at a local Dayton, Ohio, radio station, he got bored rattling off weather reports, so he decided to try something new.

“About the third day, I decided that I’d interview myself. [I was] starting to gamble a little bit with this so-called career,” remembered Winters. “So I said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we have a wonderful gentleman here … Sir Edmund Denler. [He’s] flown a secret flight aircraft all the way from London to Labrador, Labrador here to Dayton and just wonderful to have you here sir. …’”

Winter’s escapades got lots of attention. “The board lit up like a Christmas tree and [folks asked], ‘Who the hell is this character? Is he kidding?’ The owner of the radio station was waiting for Winters when he got off the air. Winters never got a chance to explain that the personalities he’d been interviewing for his show didn’t really exist, but were imagined and brought to life by the young comedian.

“He said, ‘Time and temperature, that’s all we want,’” recalled Winters. “Well, I somehow said to myself early in life that versatility is a curse. And the more versatile you are, the less likely you are to become a big star, make any money. One dimensional people make a lot of green.”

Winter’s Character Development

So, Winters became known, primarily, for his wild-haired, on-the-fly imitations of characters, and his incredible talent made him a coveted guest on talk shows, variety programs and late night television.

“The reason a lot of these guys — Andy [Williams] and Dean [Martin] and Steve [Allen] and Jack [Paar]— chose me was a very dangerous thing, but … I would bet on this: [They would say,] ‘One thing about Winters, you never knew what he’s going to say or do.’ So, I don’t think they sweated my being dirty … or embarrassing … they knew I would be funny,” said Winters.

In the course of his career, Winters has appeared on programs such as “The Andy Williams Show,” “The Carol Burnett Show,” “The Tonight Show” and many others. Winters developed several beloved characters such as, “Maude Frickert,” a sweet elderly woman with a sharp tongue, and “Elwood Sluggins,” a doltish everyman, and he thrills audiences by quickly switching from one character to another, sometimes in a matter of seconds.