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.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 5, 1988 issue of U.S. News & World Report.
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.