April 12, 2013 at 1:10 PM ET
Jonathan Winters, who earned laughs playing everyone from an alien baby to a crotchety grandma, and who inspired numerous comedians in the field of improvisational comedy, has died of natural causes at age 87.
Winters' agent told NBC News that the actor died Thursday night at his home in Montecito, Calif., while surrounded by family and friends.
Winters was born in Dayton, Ohio, on Nov. 11, 1925. His career kicked off when his wife, Eileen, encouraged him to enter a talent contest, which he won. That performance led to a DJ job at WING-AM in Dayton in 1946, and he eventually moved to New York and became a performer at Manhattan's Blue Angel nightclub.
Winters became known for his numerous classic comedy characters and routines, including sharp-tongued Maude Frickert, whom the comic said he based on a large, humorous but bedridden relative.
“I decided, having seen a lot of older people, that many of them even today are shelved,” Winters told the Archive of American Television. “I decided to get a hip old lady.” Johnny Carson was inspired by Frickert to create his own version, Aunt Blabby, who appeared frequently on Carson's "Tonight Show." His other popular recurring characters included countryish Elwood P. Suggins, wealthy B.B. Bindlestiff, football coach Piggy Bladder and Princess Leilani-nani, the world's oldest hula dancer.
Winters' improvisational comedy inspired a generation of funny men and women. In a classic 1964 clip from "The Jack Paar Program," host Paar hands Winters a stick and the comic launches into four minutes of off-the-cuff prop humor, switching from an all-American fisherman to an Austrian violinist to a Spanish bullfighter.
Winters worked as an actor in more than 73 movies and television shows, and currently has two projects in post-production: the voice of Papa Smurf in "The Smurfs 2," due to be released in July, and a character named Dayton in "Big Finish," which is scheduled for late next year. His many movies included "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" and "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming."
One of his most popular roles was that of Mearth, Mork (Robin Williams) and Mindy's (Pam Dawber) child, who was hatched -- as a fully grown adult -- from an egg Mork laid. The character was introduced during the show's fourth and final season in the hopes of improving the sci-fi comedy's ratings. Winters had previously made a guest appearance on the show in season three as Mindy's uncle Dave.
Winters won an Emmy in 1991 for his work as the goofy father of Randy Quaid on the short-lived sitcom "Davis Rules." He also won two Grammys and the second-ever Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
Winters also voiced multiple commercials. Among his most popular ads were the ones he did for Hefty garbage bags, in which he played a garbageman dressed to the nines in a spiffy white suit.
Comedians took to Twitter Friday morning to remember the comic and his body of work.
Winters' life wasn't always easy. Before he finished high school, he enlisted in the Marines and served during World War II. In 1959 while performing in San Francisco he suffered a nervous breakdown and eventually stopped touring with his comedy shows. He battled alcoholism and manic-depression, and spent eight months in a mental hospital. But he didn't lean on his experience for sympathy.
The Associated Press quotes him as saying, "If you make a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year and you're talking to the blue-collar guy who's a farmer 200 miles south of Topeka, he's looking up and saying, 'That bastard makes (all that money) and he's crying about being a manic depressive?'"
On his birthday in 2011, Winters posted on Facebook, "I can't thank you enough for all the birthday wishes. The only thing I can imagine worse than being 86 is being 96."
The actor is survived by his two children and five grandchildren.
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