LOS ANGELES — The large child known as Jonathan Winters died Friday at age 87.
Accompanying him into the now-noisier hereafter were the multitudes he contained, a cast of men, women, children of every race and nationality, rich and poor, city and country. Some were characters with names to whom the comedian would return — Maude Frickert, the go-go granny — but more of them existed for a minute or less, brought into focus, played with and then sent on their way, as another appeared in their place. He could create a person, a back story and a world in the space of a line.
Significantly, he began in radio, in Ohio — a man in a room, filling it with people and noises with nothing but his own voice. (He was an expert producer of sound effects.) The tenor of the times — it was an age of comedy-as-theater, including improvisational theater — set the stage for Winters’ work, but he found his own way into it.
Improv, which is often done badly (and rarely solo), is not just “making things up.” It requires a depth and breadth of knowledge, a sponge-like sensitivity to the wide variety of humanity, from the way people walk to the sounds they make, and not a little empathy. Winters brought a varied background to his art: He knew country life and city life; he was a gunner on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific in World War II; he had thought at one point to be a political cartoonist and went to art school to that end.
After a nervous breakdown onstage at San Francisco’s Hungry I, some time in a mental hospital and a second collapse, he quit nightclub gigs. In the early 1960s, his work included TV appearances that more and more were tailored to his gift.