"Pound for pound, Jonathan Winters is the funniest man on earth." These words, spoken by talk show host Jack Paar in the early '60s, were not chosen lightly. After war service and graduation from Kenyon College, Winters began his career on a radio station in his hometown of Dayton, OH. The rotund comedian was supposed to merely introduce the records and announce the temperature, but ever so gradually his irrepressible ad-libs and improvisations took over the show. His TV career began on CBS's daytime The Garry Moore Show, where he introduced such imperishable characters as freewheeling senior citizen Maude Frickert and doltish Elwood P. Suggins. He was a regular on the 1955 summer series And Here's the Show, and in 1956 landed his own 15-minute NBC series (the first network program to be regularly videotaped). Though never less than side-splittingly funny on camera, Winters was plagued by severe emotional problems in real life, not the least of which was his reliance on what he called "the sauce." After a highly publicized sanitarium stay, a clean and sober Winters returned to TV, though it would be 1967 before any network would take a chance on his headlining a regular weekly show (during the 1964-1965 season, he starred in a group of well-received specials, and was also a frequent guest on The Tonight Show, The Jack Paar Program, and The Andy Williams Show). During the early '60s, Winters' recorded bits began frequently popping up on the NBC radio series Monitor, and in 1963, he made his movie debut in the all-star It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). In answer to critics who felt that Winters was tied down by scripted material, the comedian starred in the two-season syndicated weekly The Wacky World of Jonathan Winters (1972-1973), which was completely ad-libbed. Many young comics of the 1970s and 1980s have declared that Winters was a prime influence in their choice of career. No comedian was more vocal in his praise of Winters than Robin Williams, who in 1981 arranged for Winters to be cast as overgrown baby Mearth on Williams' popular sitcom Mork and Mindy. Jonathan Winters remained as funny and active as ever into the 1990s, making uproarious appearances on Jay Leno's Tonight Show and co-starring in such big-budget theatrical films as The Shadow (1994). He played multiple parts in the 2000 big-screen version of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, and in 2007 he was the center of Certifiably Jonathan. In 2011 he was tapped to provide the voice of Papa Smurf in the big-screen adaptation of the popular '80s animated show The Smurfs. He reprised his role in the 2013 sequel, but passed away at age 87 in April of that year, before the movie was released.
Biography by Hal Erickson
- Served in the Marine Corps in the South Pacific during World War II.
- Began his show-business career as a disc jockey on a Dayton, Ohio, radio station in the late 1940s.
- Showcased his trademark improvisational skills and offbeat characters in the early '70s ad-libbed variety show Wacky World of Jonathan Winters.
- Won the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2000.
- Accomplished visual artist with a collection of abstract paintings and drawings.