Monday, April 15, 2013

Jonathan Winters 1925 - 2013

My autographed photo of Jonathan Winters
It was sad to see that Jonathan Winters passed away a few days ago.

As I've written here before, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is one of my favorite movies (seeing it in Cleveland when it first came out in 1963 was a big event for my family) and much of my enjoyment of it comes from the performance of Jonathan Winters.

His character, the peanut-brained furniture mover named Lennie Pike, probably elicits more laughs than any of the other principles in the movie, which is no small achievement since his co-stars included Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Milton Berle and Phil Silvers. Winters' character not only stars in one of the movie's most memorable and hilarious comic sequences (the destruction of the gas station in the desert) but he also discovers the Big W that everyone is looking for.

Winters also makes his character one of the most sympathetic in the movie, as his motive to find the money is not based on greed. One of the things Pike wants to do with the money is to buy a wheelchair and some fresh flowers for the nice old lady that runs the boarding house where he lives. He's one of the more honest characters in the movie, since he's legitimately upset when he realizes that the others have no intention of paying taxes on their share of the money when they find it. As Pike puts it, "Everybody has to pay taxes. Even businessmen that rob and steal and cheat from people every day – even they have to pay taxes!"

I still feel really bad for Pike when he tries to flag down the car driven by Terry-Thomas and, at Ethel Merman's urging, they ignore his plea for help and speed right by him, leaving him alone and stranded in the middle of nowhere. The sad look on his face is heart-rending.

Then I felt bad for Pike shortly thereafter, when Phil Silvers also double-crosses Pike and leaves him stranded on the highway again with only a battered little girl's bike for transportation. That's why it's so satisfying seeing him chase Phil Silvers around with a pick later in the movie.

Every kid in the 1960s and 70s loved Jonathan Winters. When you saw him in a movie or on a TV show, you knew you were in for some great laughs. I remember watching his early 1970s syndicated TV show, The Wacky World of Jonathan Winters (click here to hear the theme) and enjoying the cartoon sequence that ran during the credits. It featured a caricature of Winters marching down the street with a bunch of items, such as a clock, that had sprouted legs.

He was also terrific in The Twilight Zone episode ("A Game of Pool") where he played the pool shark who came back from the afterlife to compete against the Jack Klugman character. Winters' character eventually loses, but he has the last laugh.

Anyway, I was disappointed to see little coverage of Winters' death in the paper or on TV. That's what happens to many celebrities when they pass away decades after their heyday.

At least Jonathan Winters will live forever in the hearts and minds of his devoted fans, every time they watch It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

In fact, I think it's about time I watched it again – for probably the 100th time.

One of Jonathan Winters' fans has kindly assembled a montage of some of his sequences from It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Watch and smile.


Anonymous said...

Dan, you may or may not know that Jonathan Winters was a favorite of Robin Williams, himself no slouch in the comedy department in my opinion. It was Williams who insisted that Winters be cast as Mearth, Mork from Ork's "son", in the sitcom Mork and Mindy in the mid to late 70's. While I also like Mad Mad Mad Mad World, to me Winters' best character was Maude Frickert. The comments "Maudie" could get away with on 1960's TV were amazing.
Don Wozniak

Dan Brady said...

Hi Don,

It's funny that Johnny Carson did his Aunt Blabby character that was so obviously based on Maudie Frickert. I wonder what Jonathan WInters thought of it?

Randall Chet said...

Unlike now - where you can watch just about anything on demand - during the 70's you had to wait for New Year's Eve to watch It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. I looked forward to it every year. We had the soundtrack LP which had awesome artwork by Mad Magazine artist Jack Davis. I would stare at it for hours:

-Alan D Hopewell said...

"IAMMMMW" is one of my favorites too, and Jonathan Winters was one of my favorite people to watch on tv, no matter what he was doing.

MeTV showed "A Game of Pool" the other night.

Dan Brady said...

LIke Randall, we looked forward to seeing it on those New Years Eve broadcasts as well. It inspired me to go out and buy the album at Clarkins, which I played to death. It became a mental soundtrack of sorts to my senior year (76-77) at Admiral KIng.

Since then, I have purchased no less than THREE different CDs of the soundtrack! One is the same as the album, one is the same with a few extras, and the third is the complete set of music cues extracted from the actual movie soundtrack! They're great to listen to when speeding around in traffic while late for work.

Jerry A. McCoy said...

I shook Jonathan Winters' hand around 1976 in the lobby of the Front Row Theater in Highland Heights, Ohio. An amazing talent. RIP.

Anonymous said...

Just saw the Twilight Zone episode for the first time not long ago! It was great...very uncharacteristic of him. He was a good dramatic actor!

Dingy Bell