Skip to main content

Gottfried: Jonathan Winters was mad brilliant

By Gilbert Gottfried, Special to CNN
updated 8:38 PM EDT, Fri April 12, 2013
<a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/12/showbiz/jonthan-winters-death/index.html'>Comedian Jonathan Winters</a> died on Thursday, April 11, at his Montecito, California, home, a business associate told CNN. He was 87. Winters appears here on "The Jonathan Winters Show" in 1956. Click to see more pictures of the man known for his comic irreverence: Comedian Jonathan Winters died on Thursday, April 11, at his Montecito, California, home, a business associate told CNN. He was 87. Winters appears here on "The Jonathan Winters Show" in 1956. Click to see more pictures of the man known for his comic irreverence:
HIDE CAPTION
Remembering Jonathan Winters
Remembering Jonathan Winters
Remembering Jonathan Winters
Remembering Jonathan Winters
Remembering Jonathan Winters
Remembering Jonathan Winters
Remembering Jonathan Winters
Remembering Jonathan Winters
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gilbert Gottfried: Jonathan Winters' mental health struggle and creativity made him brilliant
  • He says like many comedians, such as Robin Williams, Winters' fearlessness influenced him
  • He says Winters spent much time alone as a child developing characters
  • When he met Winters, Gottfried spent hilarious time with him. He should be long remembered

Editor's note: Gilbert Gottfried is a comedian and actor. Follow him on Twitter @realgilbert.

(CNN) -- Jonathan Winters was not always in his right mind. I don't mean that only in the showbiz sense, but in the mental health sense. Jonathan, who died Thursday, was a nut as a comic, but also manic depressive and was institutionalized at least once in his life. He was also brilliantly talented. And the combination of his mental troubles and amazing talent made him the legendary performer that he was. He recognized this himself, telling an NPR reporter in 2011, "I need that pain — whatever it is — to call upon it from time to time, no matter how bad it was."

That's a common concern for performers when they go into therapy or other treatment; ditto performers who give up drugs and alcohol. They worry: If I don't have that pain, where do I draw my creativity from?

Gilbert Gottfried
Gilbert Gottfried

Jonathan needn't have worried. He was a bottomless well of creativity. He was someone who could pick up a paper clip and do three hours of impromptu comedy on it.

I was always a fan of the way he could work without a net. There was a fearless, just crazy attitude about him--of not caring, not being afraid -- that always appealed to me. He influenced me and many other comics.

When you watch Robin Williams, you can see a lot of Jonathan Winters. Robin is the first one to admit that; he worshiped Jonathan Winters. He insisted that Jonathan be written in as a regular on "Mork and Mindy." They wrote him in as an overgrown child, which was perfect casting.

It was natural that Jonathan would get into comedy. He was an only child with divorced parents, a father he said was alcoholic, and he had lots of time alone to make up voices and characters in his room. When Jonathan met his future wife, he had just lost his wristwatch, the story goes. He was upset about this. But then, his wife saw an ad for a talent contest where the first prize was, believe it or not, a wristwatch. She was certain he would win and he did. His career in comedy followed.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



I've also heard that when his future wife, Eileen, told her father that she and Jonathan would get married, he gave them an ultimatum: that after a certain period, if Jonathan didn't make it in showbiz, he would have to get a real job to support her. Luckily, he went on to work in radio and later as a stand-up comedian in New York. He made it onto TV, appearing on Jack Paar and Steve Allen's shows and later was in films, like "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."

He made comedy albums that won Grammys and eventually also won an Emmy for a sitcom, in 1991. One bit he did was "Jonathan's Attic" where he was put in a room with a bunch of odds and ends, props, wigs, etc., and he was left to his own devices. He always could pick up anything and turn it into comedy.

Comedian Jonathan Winters dies
1989: Jonathan Winters says 'goodnight'

Once I was appearing on a television show that Jonathan was appearing on, too. That was the first and only time, sadly, that I met him. He saw me, recognized me and invited me to come into his dressing room and sit down. He then started talking, no rhyme nor reason to any of it, but it was all funny. He would tell sad stories about his life and you'd start laughing. He told me, for example, that his father drilled it into his head to save his money and not fool around with women. "And now," he said, pointing to himself, "I have no money,"-- and then, pointing downward toward his crotch, "and Mr. Pencil doesn't work."

Every now and then, I would get tired and start drifting off. Jonathan would snap his fingers at me and go, "Come back Gilbert. Are you zoning out there?" And then immediately, he'd have me laughing again.

In a TV interview I saw not long ago, Cheech Marin spoke about how he lived near Jonathan Winters and would always see him in the supermarket. He'd be walking up and down the aisles, doing voices, shtick and talking to himself. Cheech would wait a little while, then go over to him and say, "Jonathan, I think it's time to just buy something and leave."

I found out about Jonathan Winters' death a day after it happened. That seems wrong. A talent like his should be more revered. The world knew about Kim Kardashian's divorce before she did. But Jonathan seems to have been forgotten. Well, I can only speak for myself, but I certainly will never forget him.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gilbert Gottfried

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT