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Improv comedian Jonathan Winters dies at 87

Jonathan Winters, the cherub-faced comedian whose breakneck improvisations and misfit characters inspired the likes of Robin Williams and Jim Carrey, has died. He was 87.

The Ohio native died of natural causes Thursday evening at his home in Montecito, Calif., said Joe Petro III, a longtime friend. He was surrounded by family and friends.

Winters was a pioneer of improvisational standup comedy, with an exceptional gift for mimicry, a grab bag of eccentric personalities and a bottomless reservoir of creative energy. Facial contortions, sound effects, tall tales -- all could be used in a matter of seconds to get a laugh.

"Beyond funny, He invented a new category of comedic genius," comedian Albert Brooks tweeted Friday.

A devotee of Groucho Marx and Laurel and Hardy, Winters and his free-for-all brand of humor inspired Johnny Carson, Billy Crystal, Tracey Ullman and Lily Tomlin, among many others.

Carson in particular lifted Winters' Maude Frickert character almost intact for the long-running Aunt Blabby character he portrayed on "The Tonight Show." It was Williams, meanwhile, who helped introduce Winters to millions of new fans in 1981 as the son of Williams' goofball alien and his earthling wife in the final season of ABC's "Mork & Mindy." But Winters' only Emmy was for best supporting actor for playing Randy Quaid's father in the sitcom "Davis Rules" (1991).

He also won two Grammys: One for his work on "The Little Prince" album in 1975 and another for his "Crank(y) Calls" comedy album in 1996. He won the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for Humor in 1999.

Winters was sought out in later years for his changeling voice, and he contributed to numerous cartoons and animated films. He continued to work almost to the end of his life, and to influence new generations of comics.

Winters was born Nov. 11, 1925, in Dayton, Ohio. Growing up during the Depression as an only child whose parents divorced when he was 7, Winters spent a lot of time entertaining himself. But he found a comedic mentor in his mother, radio personality Alice Bahman.

Winters joined the Marines at 17 and served two years in the South Pacific. He returned to study at the Dayton Art Institute, helping him develop keen observational skills.

After stints as a radio disc jockey and TV host in Ohio from 1950 to 1953, he left for New York, where he found early work doing impressions of John Wayne, Cary Grant, Marx and James Cagney.

One night after a show, an older man sweeping up told him he wasn't breaking any new ground by mimicking the rich or famous.

"He said, 'What's the matter with those characters in Ohio? I'll bet there are some far-out dudes that you grew up with back in Ohio,' " Winters said in 1997.

Two days later, he cooked up one of his most famous characters: the hard-drinking, dirty old woman Maude Frickert, modeled in part on his own mother and an aunt. Winters soon had a following. But before long, he was struggling with depression and drinking, and he spent eight months in a mental hospital -- a topic he rarely discussed.

"I've done, for the most part, pretty much what I intended -- I ended up doing comedy, writing and painting," Winters once said. "I've had a ball. And as I get older, I just become an older kid."

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