Skip to main content

Gottfried: Jonathan Winters was mad brilliant

By Gilbert Gottfried, Special to CNN
April 13, 2013 -- Updated 0038 GMT (0838 HKT)
<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
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT