Jonathan Winters, the comedian who helped make "improv" a household term and kept audiences laughing for over half a century, died last night of natural causes at his home in Montecito, California. He was 87.
Winters' boundless font of characters, screwball facial expressions, and rapid-fire improvisational skills would eventually give rise to other entertainment heavyweights like Robin Williams, Lily Tomlin, and Steve Martin, not to mention entire programs like Whose Line Is It Anyway, an improv game show whose featured test of wits, props, was essentially just an old Winters routine. Though Whose Line Is It Anyway? ran for hundreds of episodes in different iterations, it always turned out that nobody could do it as well as the original.
Winters would go on to star in dozens of film and TV roles, including turns in the Twilight Zone, Mork & Mindy—alongside his protege Williams—and It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. In 1991 he won a best-supporting actor Emmy for playing Randy Quaid's father on Davis Rules, and in 1999 he was awarded the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for Humor.
Once asked how he came about his talent for conjuring characters and voices from thin air, Winters, who was born in Dayton, Ohio, noted that he was always a child who wanted many different careers:
As a kid, I always wanted to be lots of things. I was a Walter Mitty type. I wanted to be in the French Foreign Legion, a detective, a doctor, a test pilot with a scarf, a fisherman who hauled in a tremendous marlin after a 12-hour fight.
In his nearly nine decades, Winters got to be all that and more.