Remembrances
5:07 am
Sat April 13, 2013

How Did All Those People Get Inside Jonathan Winters?

Originally published on Sat April 13, 2013 10:11 am

You can call anyone but Einstein a genius and start an argument.

Well, maybe Einstein or Jonathan Winters. The comedian, who died Friday at the age of 87, was immediately hailed by Steve Martin, Robin Williams and others as a genius.

He made hit comedy albums, was a regular on the old Tonight Show, memorably knocked down a gas station in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World and co-starred with and inspired Robin Williams.

But Winters was best known for creating a repertory company of characters that he carried around in his head. He told us how he built that cast after some advice from another performer at a club in New York:

"You know, we did Cagney and we did Karloff and John Wayne — Duke Wayne, you know, and these guys. And an old man said to me, 'You know, your routines that you're doing, these impressions are great, Jonathan, but can you accept a little criticism?' I said, 'Sure. You've been here longer than I have, Jack. Let's hear it.'

"And he said, 'Problem is,' he said, 'you know the stars you're doing, they're stars. They've made it and they've made it big. And all you're doing — right now you're the shoeshine boy. You're merely shining their shoes. And if you want to continue to do that, fine. Where are you from?' And I said, 'Well, I'm from Ohio originally. I grew up there.'

"He said, 'Oh, start doing those characters that you grew up with.' And that's when I turned my whole thing around."

Jonathan Winters spoke with Weekend Edition Saturday in September 2000.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

You can call anyone but Einstein a genius and start an argument. Well, maybe Einstein and Jonathon Winters. The comedian who died Thursday at the age of 87 was immediately hailed by Steve Martin, Robin Williams, and others as a genius. He made hit comedy albums, was a regular on the old "Tonight Show" and memorably knocked down a whole gas station in "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."

But Jonathan Winters was best known for creating a repertory company of characters that he carried around in his head. He told us in an interview in 2000...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

JONATHAN WINTERS: I was told years ago when I worked in New York, first club I worked in was Ruban Bleu, which is long gone now - but I was doing impressions, not nearly as good at Rich Little, but we all did them. We did we did Cagney and we did Karloff and John Wayne - Duke Wayne, you know, and these guys. And an old man said to me: You know, your routines that you're doing, these impressions are great, Jonathan, but can you accept a little criticism? I said: Sure. You've been here longer than I have, Jack. Let's hear it.

And he said: Problem is - he said - you know the stars you're doing, they're stars. They've made it and they've made it big. And all you're doing - right now you're the shoeshine boy. You're merely shining their shoes. And if you want to continue to do that, fine. Where are you from? And I said: Well, I'm from Ohio originally. I grew up there. He said: Oh, start doing those characters that you grew up with. And that's when I turned my whole thing around.

SIMON: Is performing fun for you?

WINTERS: Oh yeah. It's always been fun. I don't have the strength that I used to have. I think there's - hopefully there's one good movie left in me. I'd like to do a good picture. But it's late in the game and I have to be realistic. I'm coming up on, as I say, 7-5 and how many parts are there?

If I don't get it, I've had a hell of a first half, I had a hell of a third quarter and a fourth and now I'm in overtime. And the cheerleaders now are leaving. They've thrown their pompoms on the Earth, the floor of the stadium. There's some older people left; they're just kind of looking and I'm just kind of sitting there in the stand. The team has just about left the field. They're about no more than a minute and a quarter to play and the coach is saying: Hey old man - pointing at me - you better go out and see your car is up on blocks or not.

(LAUGHTER)

WINTERS: So, that's the way I look at it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Jonathan Winters speaking in September of 2000. You can hear the full interview at npr.org. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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