Springfield's Jonathan Winters sports the Wildcat blue at his home in Montecito, Calif. Photo by Michael Moriatis, special to the News-Sun
Photo: Michael Moriatis
Photo: Michael Moriatis

Springfield legend Winters dies at 87

Improv comedian inspired a generation of performers.

Winters, 87, died Thursday evening of natural causes at his home in Montecito, Calif., long-time family friend Joe Petro III said.

The comedian’s son, Jay, and daughter, Lucinda, were with their father, Petro said. He was preceded in death in 2009 by his wife, Eileen, a Dayton native.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Winters, whose improvisational style of comedy ultimately proved hugely influential to such young comics as Robin Williams, never had to come back to Ohio to sell implements — or worse.

As he told the Springfield News-Sun in 1955 — the year he happened to become a star on late-night TV — “If all else fails, I guess I might have to get that old bait shop going again out in Pitchin.”

Winters’ appearances on the late-night TV shows of Jack Paar, Steve Allen, Johnny Carson and others in the 1950s and ’60s became the stuff of legend, and his 12 comedy records for Verve each received Grammy nominations.

He hosted TV shows of his own in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, and made appearances on a litany of other shows, including “Laugh-In,” “The Muppet Show,” “Hee Haw” and “Hollywood Squares.” Winters even appeared in cartoon form as himself in a 1972 episode of “The New Scooby-Doo Movies.”

He endeared himself to a younger generation in 1981 when he hatched from an egg on TV’s “Mork and Mindy” as Mearth, the son of Mork, an alien from the planet Ork played by his protege, Williams. (Orkans aged backward, thus explaining the logic of Winters as Mork’s son.)

Winters also was part of the all-star cast of Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers, Buster Keaton and the Three Stooges that made the 1963 movie “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”

He was among the last of his generation of comics and also notably struggled with bipolar disorder.

“I’m in overtime, I know that,” Winters confessed to the News-Sun in 2011 during what would be his last interview with the paper. “At 85, I’ve seen four quarters.”

He knew he wasn’t long for the world.

“At my age,” he told the paper, “guys who were in World War II, a thousand a day are dying. And that’s kind of scary. But I had a hell of a roll. I’ve had a great career, a great time. Had a lot of problems — who the hell hasn’t? — and overcame almost all of them. I’ve met some great people, traveled around the world. My God. A lot of people never get across town.”

In the 1990s, Winters finally won a Best Comedy Album Grammy, for “Crank Calls,” and received an Emmy as well for his role as Randy Quaid’s dad on the sitcom “Davis Rules.”

In 1999, he became only the second person to receive the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Richard Pryor was the first recipient, and the award since has been bestowed on such legends as Bob Newhart, Steve Martin, George Carlin and Bill Cosby.

The characters Winters brought to life in his act — everyday folks with names like Maude Frickert and Elwood P. Suggins — were inspired by the people he encountered growing up in Ohio.

During his last interview with the News-Sun in 2011, Winters explained where those people could be found.

“There were a number of characters growing up that were like this,” he told the paper. “People that were from Enon or Urbana. Not so much Springfield. But the minute you went to Bellefontaine …”

He remained proud to be from Ohio, telling the News-Sun in 2011 that he carried a buckeye in his pocket wherever he went.

“I thought many times I wanted to come back,” he told the paper via phone from California, “especially after my wife died. I mean, outside of the weather, that’s about all you’ve got here. I would come back in a minute. But, at 85, my luck, I’d come out of some condominium or apartment and fall on the snow and never get up.”

Winters was born in Dayton, but moved to Springfield to live with his mother and grandmother following his parents’ 1932 divorce.

His mother, Alice Bahman, was a well-known Springfield radio personality on WIZE.

At an early age, Winters showcased a talent for making people laugh.

Addison “Skip” Beckley, of Springfield, recalled Winters’ classroom antics at Elmwood School on Springfield’s east side.

While their teacher would turn to the blackboard, “Johnny would instantly turn around and do this pantomime of Al Capone,” Beckley said Friday. “Of course, the class would erupt in laughter, she’d wheel around, and he would wheel around at the same time and look innocent.”

Beckley later shared an apartment with Winters in New York when Beckley was working for Manufacturers Hanover Trust and Winters was appearing in night clubs.

He said that “while we got along fine” — something Winters did with most people — “sometimes people could get a little too much of it. He was always on. He couldn’t stop performing. Almost anything (that came up) would remind him of something else, and he might go into a little act, leaving most of us in stitches.”

Winters dropped out of Springfield High School at 17 to fight in the Pacific with the Marine Corps, then returned to Dayton after World War II. There, he studied art at the Dayton Art Institute and met Eileen Schauder, who would become his wife of 60 years until her death from breast cancer.

Winters attended art school alumni reunions at the DAI and also donated one of his works to the museum in 1993.

The oil painting by Winters, not currently on view at the museum, is titled “The First and Last Day of Spring,” and was painted in 1983. The painting also appears on the cover of the book “Hang-Ups: Paintings by Jonathan Winters.”

In Dayton, Winters also started the broadcasting career that led him into show business, first becoming a DJ on WING in 1946. From there, he went to WBNS-TV in Columbus.

He departed for the clubs of New York City in 1953.

The Springfield Arts Council and Clark State Performing Arts Center hoped in recent years to bring Winters back to honor him.

Chris Moore, director emeritus of the council, presented Winters in a 1984 performance at Memorial Hall that was notable for Winters bringing the News-Sun onto stage and commenting, in character, on the news of the day.

Moore then was tasked with calling Winters recently to see if he’d be interested in coming back.

“He said he wasn’t going to be going anywhere,” Moore said Friday. “He said he’d love nothing better than to be in Springfield and be with his friends and be with his community, but he just wasn’t able to physically.”

Staff Writer Meredith Moss contributed to this report.

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