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The Joyful Shades of Jonathan Winters

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"Three Hard Boiled Eggs," painting by Jonathan Winters

When you watch late night talk shows, you see the joyful light of Jonathan Winters.
The comedian, television star and painter blurred comedy and reality with the snap of a finger and the beat of a big Midwestern heart.

Albert Brooks and Jim Carrey are Winters disciples as was Phil Hartman. In a rare 1989 interview in New York, David Letterman told me he liked Johnny Carson because he was so effortless, Steve Allen because he was a guy in a tie in a suit being "silly" and Winters because he was "uninhibited." "I just saw him at a restaurant in Los Angeles, where he cornered a group of people and was relentless," Letterman said. "He would not leave. At first, they were amused because they were just tourists having lunch with Jonathan Winters while he performed for them. But he would not stop performing. He just went on and on and on. You could sense a collective anxiety like, 'Gawd, how are we going to get on with our lives?'."

Winters died April 11 of natural causes at his home in Montecito, California. He was 87.

Winters played Robin Williams son on the hit television series "Mork and Mindy" and I remember my father taking me to see Winters in the comedypaloooza "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" in Cinerama! .......

.......Johnny Carson's "Aunt Blabby" character was born from Winters' "Maude Frickert" and Winters honored his Midwestern roots with his woodsy pre-Eddie Bauer character Elwood P. Suggins who deadpanned, "I'm the voice of spring. I bring you little goodies from the forest."

I grew up watching Winters on television and, indeed, he put me on edge. He had a wired childlike nature that juxtaposed the confines of modern living.

Winters made television history in 1956, when RCA broadcast the first public demonstration of color videotape on "The Jonathan Winters Show." Winters understood the possibilities, David Hajdu wrote in The New York Times in 2006. He used video technology "to appear as two characters, bantering back and forth, seemingly in the studio at the same time. You could say he invented the video stunt."

It was a treat to meet Winters in 1988 when he was on a book tour to promote "Hang-Ups," a collection of 50 of his prints. He had been painting for 25 years.

He wore a bright Cincinnati Reds necktie. He smiled. A lot.

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A native of Dayton, Ohio, Winters aspired to be an artist long before he wanted to be a comedian. He studied art at Kenyon College and the Dayton Art Institute. He met his wife, Eileen, at the Dayton Art Institute. Winters was married for 60 years. Eileen (Schauder) Winters died in 2009 after a 20-year battle with breast cancer.

Winters titled his book "Hang-Ups" because of the tribulations in his life.

The best-known Winters improvisation was in the spring of 1959, when after appearing at the Hungry i in San Francisco, the comedian allegedly scaled the rigging of a sailing ship moored at Fisherman's Wharf and threatened to jump. (He later denied he climbed the rigging.) Winters wound up spending eight months in a California sanitarium and was later diagnosed with manic depression. Like Letterman, he quit drinking. Winters' father was an alcoholic whose drinking cost him his marriage. Winters, an only child, was 7 when his parents split up.

"I was cheated of being a kid in my childhood," Winters told me. "There were a lot of things I wanted to be and a lot of things I wanted to do. I still feel that a lot of us live in this 'house of correction.' It doesn't mean you can do anything you want to do, but why are there things like, 'I don't want you to sit there, that's Aunt Ann's chair...' Well, what's it doing out? Life was full of don'ts for me."

Here's Jonathan using his Midwest roots to roast Johnny Carson:

Today I think of the Winters painting "Survivors" that appears in the book. The painting draws on the simplistic beauty of a crying crimson pony sharing a small island with a trio of white doves and a barren tree holding an empty hanger. In the foreground are two smaller islands full of blooming violets. There's white lightning in the sky. There is life and death.

I asked Winters about that painting. He chose his words carefully, like an artist with a fine brush.

"I've always thought I was a survivor at a lot of things," he said. "Not that other people aren't. Hopefully they've survived a lot more than I have. It sounds strange when people ask, 'Well, what have you survived?' The fact you might have been killed in the war? (He served two and a half years in the Pacific theater during World War II) You survived hospitilization? Alcoholism? I've had a few major things hit me that jolted my life mentally and physically.

"But the thing that upsets me almost daily is the tremendous amount of people around me that don't have any sense of humor. Any. Somebody asked me what I was afraid of the most. It's the guy who has no sense of humor. And on top of that, he thinks he does. That's the worst."

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It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

He then flew off into another character, riffing and rolling like he did at that restaurant in Los Angeles.

Winters deployed a deep and serious salesman voice: "Hey, I've got a funny thing to tell you. And I don't tell jokes. I'm with the American Barbed Wire Company. Matter of fact, I'm chairman of the board. I'm out here at the Oak Leaf Country Club.....
"...Would you just tell the joke, sir?
"Oh, the joke yeah. I don't do dialects, you know. I don't tell jokes. Imagine me telling you a joke,
"I don't tell jokes at all."
"Oh, yes you do. Don't tell me that. I see you on TV. The guy is getting hostile. You all tell jokes. A comic is a joke, I'm not a comic. I'm a comedian and there's a difference. Is there enough barbed wire to put around the drain?
"

Winters returned to the interview, his core.
"So this is the drain," he said. "This is the time you say, 'I am a survivor. I've lasted these storms.' The wind was yesterday and the snow is tomorrow. And I know what it is. It's sensitivity. There's two kinds of people. Color and religion have nothing to do with it.

"It's always sensitivity."

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Survivors of the Red Tide, by Jonathan Winters.

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Dave Hoekstra

Dave Hoekstra has been a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. His collection of Sun-Times travel columns, "Ticket To Everywhere," was published in 2000 by Lake Claremont Press. He was lead writer for "Farm Aid: Song for America" (Rodale Press, 2005) which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Willie Nelson inspired effort.
He won a 1987 Chicago Newspaper Guild Stick O-Type Award for Column Writing. Hoekstra wrote and co-proudced the WTTW-Channel 11 PBS special: "The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement," nominated for a 2001-02 Chicago Emmy for a documentary program/cultural significance.
He lives in Chicago.

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