Jonathan Winters, the comedian known for his television, stand-up and film performances, died Thursday evening at 87.
An interview published in the Dec. 5, 1988 issue of U.S. News & World Report provides insight into the life and style of the man cited as an inspiration by a generation of entertainers.
In a quote widely circulated by The Associated Press and other publications Friday, Winters says, "As a kid, I always wanted to be lots of things. I was a Walter Mitty type. I wanted to be in the French Foreign Legion, a detective, a doctor, a test pilot with a scarf, a fisherman who hauled in a tremendous marlin after a 12-hour fight."
That quote continues, "I've done for the most part pretty much what I intended - I ended up doing comedy, writing and painting."
The interview was compiled by Alvin P. Sanoff, and the words belong to Winters.
The stand-up art of Jonathan Winters
My paintings and comedy have a lot in common. They are both improvisations based on observation. I was always an observer, even as a child. I could be satisfied to sit in a car for 3 hours and just look at the street go by while my mother went shopping. Now, I observe by going to the lobby of a hotel, or I just walk around and look at people. Then I can put together what I see with a semblance of humor, or create a personality:
"Hi, Wally Wellborn here with Wellborn Buick. My dad owned this place, and I'm with it now. My dad's gone. Here, let me give you this flower. One of a kind. I took it off a grave. I was just kidding. How about a new Buick? Is this your little boy? He must be. He's in your arms. Either that or you've stolen him in a nearby grocery. And your name, sir?"
"Dawson, Mr. Carl Dawson. I'm out at Blumler Lumber."
"How exciting. Would you folks like to have a ride in a brand-new 1989 Buick?"
"Yes, that's why we're here."
"God, you're electric people."
There are people like Wally Wellborn all around us; we just have to use our eyes and ears, which are a terrific movie camera. They have great sound and telephoto, wide-angle and close-up lenses. People basically all take the same movies. It's how often you go to your darkroom to develop what you've seen that makes the difference.
I began painting well before I started doing comedy. In fact, when I came out of the war in 1946, I enrolled in art school in Dayton, Ohio. I painted for three years, and then show business took hold. But in the early '60s, I decided to stick my neck out and see what the art critics would say. It turned out that I got very good notices. It's the old story: A little praise, a little pat on the back rather than being sentenced to the refrigerator, where a lot of kids have their pictures of bears stuck on the door. So I decided to start painting fairly regularly.
I find painting a much slower process than comedy, where you can go a mile a minute verbally and hope to God that some of the people out there understand you. In painting, too, your mind can be racing: "I think I'll put a bird here and run it down to the dirigible, and then this guy is skating here and a jet's going through and here's the Empire State Building. I'll put a monkey over here." But you've got to slow it down and say, "Wait a minute, now. We'd first better put in the Empire State Building, and that's going to take a little time." In fact, this year I have completed only about a half-dozen paintings. There's another that I'd like to do. I got the idea when I was sitting in a hamburger joint and a hearse pulled up. A few minutes later a U-Haul parked behind the hearse. I want to do a picture of a hearse pulling a U-Haul entitled, "You Can't Take It With You."
Of course, there are those who can paint much more quickly than I. They take cobalt blue, throw it against a 15-by-20 canvas and say,"Ah, look, this is 3 o'clock overlooking Central Park." Then when someone says, "I don't get it," the artist replies, "You don't get it? It's the happening; it's the feeling. And it costs $ 200,000." It's a slap in the teeth to talented, struggling people who have studied art when some little dummy comes along with two brushes, drinks a lot of turpentine, smokes four joints and says, "Hey, man, is this not out of sight? It's neat, isn't it?" And his patron, some woman in a little gray dress with her hair in a bun, sort of like a New Yorker cover, says, "I'm Mrs. Allen Delacroix. He's a very gifted young man."
I don't paint every day. I'm not that motivated. I don't do anything the same every day. Discipline is tough for a guy who is a rebel. The little boy in me says, "No, I don't want to do that." But I have had to learn to pace myself since last February when my heart stopped for about 8 seconds and they put a pacemaker in me. That made me turn around and regroup. Now, at 63, I feel close to retirement.
As a kid, I always wanted to be lots of things. I was a Walter Mitty type. I wanted to be in the French Foreign Legion, a detective, a doctor, a test pilot with a scarf, a fisherman who hauled in a tremendous marlin after a 12-hour fight. I've done for the most part pretty much what I intended - I ended up doing comedy, writing and painting. I've had a ball. And as I get older, I just become an older kid.