When I was first introduced to Jonathan Winters, as a kid watching The Hollywood Squares and Mork & Mindy, he was already a giant of American comedy. But when he appeared on the fourth season of Mork, I just knew him as a funny old man pretending to be a kid. The premise, introduced in the sitcom’s final season, was that space alien Mork (Robin Williams) laid an egg, out of which hatched a “baby,” Mearth, played by Winters. Orkans, we were told, aged backwards. I loved it–here was this old guy transforming himself into a bizarrely hilarious character, just like Robin Williams!
Befitting the sitcom’s aging-backwards premise, of course, I really was seeing things in reverse. Winters—who died yesterday at age 87—was really comedic father to Williams and many others, an inspiration for his comedy of improvised multiple personalities, and his creative DNA was in many of the comics who followed him for years.
Winters was a big, looming oval of a guy, yet he could transform himself at will. Decades before I discovered him, he was creating characters on comedy albums and late-night TV, characters like the sharply sweet old lady Maude Frickert, and going on legendary live-TV riffs with Jack Paar and Johnny Carson.
(PHOTOS: Remembering Jonathan Winters)
Winters was a funny, funny comedian, and the forebear of antic improv comics like Williams. But key to that was that he was also a funny, funny actor. (Actually, an actor, period; among his credits was a menacing turn in the 1961 Twilight Zone episode “A Game of Pool” with Jack Klugman.) He helped establish the idea, now common to comedy fans, that being a humorist was not just about telling jokes but inhabiting characters.
It was only later, after Mork went off the air and I got older, that I caught up with some of his past work, like his movie roles in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. But even a young Mork & Mindy fan could see there was a magic to someone who could become a hunched, wide-eyed toddler in the hulking body of a man. Rubber-faced and endlessly expressive, Winters may not have been an actual alien, but he was a certified shape-shifter, and the egg from which a brood of comedians were born. RIP.