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Jonathan Winters Remembered by Robin Williams

from The New York Times

A Madman, but Angelic


ABC, via Photofest

My father’s laughter introduced me to the comedy of Jonathan Winters. My dad was a sweet man, but not an easy laugh. We were watching Jack Paar on “The Tonight Show” on our black-and-white television, and on came Jonathan in a pith helmet.

“Who are you?” Paar asked.

“I’m a great white hunter,” Jonathan said in an effete voice. “I hunt mainly squirrels.”

“How do you do that?”

“I aim for their little nuts.”

My dad and I lost it. Seeing my father laugh like that made me think, “Who is this guy and what’s he on?”

Jonathan’s improvs on “Mork & Mindy” were legendary. People on the Paramount lot would pack the soundstage on the nights we filmed him. He once did a World War I parody in which he portrayed upper-class English generals, Cockney infantrymen, a Scottish sergeant no one could understand and a Zulu who was in the wrong war. The bit went on so long that all three cameras ran out of film. Sometimes I would join in, but I felt like a kazoo player sitting in with Coltrane.

On one of his first days on the show, a young man asked Jonathan how to get into show business. He said: “You know how movie studios have a front gate? You get a Camaro with a steel grill, drive it through the gate, and once you’re on the lot, you’re in showbiz.”

No audience was too small for Jonathan. I once saw him do a hissing cat for a lone beagle.

His comedy sometimes had an edge. Once, at a gun show, Jon was looking at antique pistols and a man asked if he was a gun proponent. He said: “No, I prefer grenades. They’re more effective.”

If you wanted a visual representation of Jonathan’s mind, you’d have to go to his house. It is awe-inspiring. There are his paintings (a combination of Miró and Navajo); baseball memorabilia; Civil War pistols and swords; model airplanes, trains, and tin trucks from the ’20s; miniature cowboys and Indians; and toys of all kinds.

We shared a love of painted military miniatures. He once sent me four tiny Napoleonic hookers in various states of undress with a note that read, “For zee troops!”

But the toys were a manifestation of a dark time in his life. Jonathan was a Marine who fought in the Pacific in World War II. When he came home from the war, he went to his old bedroom and discovered that his prized tin trucks were gone.

He asked his mother what she did with his stuff.

“I gave them to the mission,” she said.

“Why did you do that?”

“I didn’t think you were coming back,” she replied.

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Posted on April 16, 2013 by Editor

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