Jonathan Winters, comedy giant on TV and in films, dies at 87

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LOS ANGELES — Jonathan Winters, one of the great comedians of the 20th century, died Thursday night. He was 87. Winters, who had been in declining health, died at his longtime home in Los Angeles, said Gary Owens, who was his good friend.

"He was one of the great comedy talents in the history of the United States. Just brilliant," said Owens, a radio personality who was the announcer for TV's "Laugh-In."

Jack Paar, who helped propel Winters into the national consciousness with appearances on "The Tonight Show" in the late 1950s, once introduced the freewheeling comedian by saying, "Well, if you ask me who are the 25 most funny people I know, I would say, 'Here they are: Jonathan Winters.' "

Born in Dayton, Ohio, on Nov. 11, 1925, he grew up to have a rubbery, moon-shaped face and pitch-perfect ear for speech patterns. Winters could slip into such diverse characters as a redneck ballplayer, a lisping child and a prissy schoolmarm.

Winters punctuated his comedy vignettes with realistically accurate sound effects — a rotary phone being dialed, falling raindrops or a rushing subway. As he explained, "I try to paint verbal pictures."

His colorful stable of recurring characters included redneck Elwood P. Suggins and big kid Chester Honneyhugger, but perhaps his best-known was gray-haired Maude Frickert, the swinging granny.

Winters, who performed Maude in drag, described her a cross between Whistler's Mother and Norman Bates' mother.

He hosted his own comedy-variety TV shows in the '50s, '60s and '70s. He also starred in numerous specials and appeared in many films, including 1963's "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World."

In the 1981-82 TV season, Winters surfaced — or more accurately hatched out of a giant egg — on the sitcom "Mork & Mindy," starring Robin Williams, who cited Winters as one of his improvisational comedy inspirations.

As Mearth, Mork's middle-aged "infant" offspring, Winters inspired Williams to even greater heights.