Sunday, August 13, 2000

Jonathan Winters loosens up

Funny man from Ohio chats a little about PBS special based on his career

        Jonathan Winters stood up and thrust his right hand deep into his pants pocket to retrieve a small round brown object.

        “You know what this is?” asked the Dayton native to this fellow Ohioan.

        A buckeye!

        “They think it's a chestnut in New York or out here,” the comedian said when we chatted during the recent TV critics' press tour in Pasadena, Calif.

        “I always have one for good luck. It tells you what kind of guy I am.”

[photo] On the Loose, a PBS pledge-drive dpecial, uses clips of Jonathan Winters routines from the 1950s, '60s and '70s.
(PBS photo)
| ZOOM |
        Which could mean one of two things: He always keeps a bit of Ohio at hand. Or he's a little nuts.

        Actually, it's both.

        Mr. Winters wore an Ohio State University ball cap (usually he's seen in a Cincinnati Reds cap) to the PBS press conference promoting Jonathan Winters: On the Loose (9:30 p.m. today, Channel 48). In a one-on-one interview later, he wanted to talk more about the Reds than his career.

        “This is the year I thought the Reds would do it. They're drawing pretty good crowds,” he said. “The Cardinals could do it. And it looks like the Mets are pretty strong.”

        On the Loose, a one-hour pledge-drive special, captures his wacky world with wonderful old TV clips from the 1950s, '60s and '70s. Producers even found the 1954 national TV debut of “Johnny Winters” on the DuMont network's Chance of a Lifetime.

        Fans of Mr. Winters, who turns 75 in November, will enjoy the improvisations with Jack Paar and Andy Williams. Those too young to remember Mork & Mindy will be introduced to the guy who was Robin Williams before Robin Williams was born.

        In one 1964 gem, Mr. Paar hands the comedian a stick, and he does five minutes of hilarious bits off the top of his head — using it as a fishing rod, flute, sword, oar, pointer, magic wand, violin bow and Bing Crosby's golf club.

        On the Loose also showcases his crazy characters — especially Maude Frickert and Elwood P. Suggins — based on people he knew growing up in Dayton and Springfield, Ohio.

        “Since I was an only child ... I had to entertain myself,” said Mr. Winters, the son of an alcoholic father whose parents divorced in 1932, when he was 7. He moved to Springfield with his mother, longtime Springfield radio personality Alice Bahman.

        “She was very fast. Whatever humor I've inherited ... I'd have to give credit to her,” said Mr. Winters.

        Mr. Winters, who went to Springfield South High School with former Reds pitcher Brooks Lawrence, recalled one day he went to WIZE-AM with his mother.

        “Arlene Francis was passing through doing a play. She came in and said, "This is kind of a Mickey Mouse station.' And my mother was quick. She said, “Yes, and you're the Mickey Mouse guest.'”

        After a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps, Mr. Winters studied at the Dayton Art Institute, which helped him to develop keen observational skills.

        He won a Dayton talent show, and ended up as the 6-8 a.m. DJ on WING-AM in 1949. But not for long. Mr. Winters would get carried away doing his crazy characters and forget to read commercials.

        “I had to have some fun while I was there. Consequently, I was asked to leave,” he said. “I remember the exact words: "Do the time. Do the temperature. And put on Nat King Cole.'”

        He moved to Columbus, and hosted WBNS-TV shows from 1950 to 1953. Then he headed to New York with $56.46 in his pocket and a nightclub act with off-the-wall sound effects and impressions of John Wayne, Cary Grant, Groucho Marx and James Cagney.

        “I was never going to be Rich Little. I did impersonations because I was trying to show what I could do,” he said.

        One night, an elderly nightclub patron gave him life-altering advice.

  What: Jonathan Winters: On the Loose

  When: 9:30 p.m. today

  Where: Channel 48

        “I don't think you have to continue to use any more impersonations of other stars,” the man told him. “Why don't you do the people that you grew up with?”

        Soon he became Maude Frickert, the hard-drinking dirty old lady, inspired by the comic's Aunt Lou, who kept apple brandy next to her bed. Elwood P. Suggins and other blue-collar guys were based on Appalachians drawn to Dayton and Springfield factories.

        “All of my characters were a part of where I grew up,” he said. “A lot of these guys came from Kentucky to work in Ohio.”

        Then his voice changed to a slow drawl, and he became one of those guys: “We were down there on the river the other day. We sat there on the river all day, and there was no fish at all.”

        A few minutes later, he was talking about the Reds radio rain delay interview he did with Joe Nuxhall.

        “Here we have third base coach Alan Meadows. How come you're up here in the booth?”

        His voiced changed again: “Because I'm out of the rain, man! You don't want me standing down there out in the rain!”

        Next he became a player who had been beaned by a fastball: “My mind was was gone for a month. I wasn't in a coma. I just sat in the car and listened to the radio.”

        When I mentioned I was from Middletown, a football rival to Springfield South, his eyes twinkled and he became a cheerleader:

        “Yeah! Springfield Wildcats! Eyes like a wildcat, teeth like a saw! Springfield Wildcats, Rah! Rah! Rah!”

        His comedy free-for-all style inspired young Mr. Williams, who told On The Loose about their year together on Mork & Mindy. Mr. Winters played Mearth, Mr. Williams' son, in the final season (1981-82). Camera operators scrambled to reload film to record the wacky improvisational comedy as the two comic geniuses strayed from the script.

        Unfortunately, the PBS special doesn't contain any clips from Mork & Mindy, or from Mr. Winters' Emmy-winning stint on Davis Rules (1991-92) as Randy Quaid's father. Producers said the clips were too expensive.

        At 74, Mr. Winters said he's not interested in doing more prime-time or late-night TV.

        “I haven't gone back to sitcoms because of the writing,” he said. He was frustrated that Davis Rules producers added canned laughter instead of better jokes.

        “Just do the lines. If it doesn't work, we'll sweeten it,”the head writer told him.

        After many memorable appearances on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, he hasn't been comfortable with David Letterman and Jay Leno. They can't — or won't — play along with him.

        “I did Letterman once,” he said.

        How did it go?

        “It was enough for me.”

        Mr. Carson was king of late-night because “he made you feel important. It was your night to go out and do the best you could. I find with Leno and Letterman, they're thinking about one word: Overnights (ratings).”

        For the past decade, Mr. Winters has devoted his time to writing, painting and collecting antique toys. He wrote a best-selling collection of short stories called Winters' Tales in 1987. Last year he was presented the second Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for Humor. He plans to release an autobiography next year.

        He would love to make a movie with Mr. Williams, though that may never happen. “I've got all kinds of ideas, but he's a very busy guy,” he said.

        On The Loose was filmed at Mr. Winters' Montecito, Calif., home filled with his antiques and art. Cameras also followed him to a nearby hardware store where he fooled around with tools.

        Asked if he was always performing, the comedian replied: “What you see is what you get.”

        Then he added: “I was just saying to someone at (breakfast) that it is an interesting question when people say that cliche, "What you see is what you get.' Wrong! If that were true, there'd be no reason for Christmas.”


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