How Did All Those People Get Inside Jonathan Winters?

By Scott Simon

April 13, 2013

You can call anyone but Einstein a genius and start an argument.

Well, maybe Einstein or Jonathan Winters. The comedian, who died Friday at the age of 87, was immediately hailed by Steve Martin, Robin Williams and others as a genius.

He made hit comedy albums, was a regular on the old Tonight Show, memorably knocked down a gas station in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World and co-starred with and inspired Robin Williams.

But Winters was best known for creating a repertory company of characters that he carried around in his head. He told us how he built that cast after some advice from another performer at a club in New York:

"You know, we did Cagney and we did Karloff and John Wayne — Duke Wayne, you know, and these guys. And an old man said to me, 'You know, your routines that you're doing, these impressions are great, Jonathan, but can you accept a little criticism?' I said, 'Sure. You've been here longer than I have, Jack. Let's hear it.'

"And he said, 'Problem is,' he said, 'you know the stars you're doing, they're stars. They've made it and they've made it big. And all you're doing — right now you're the shoeshine boy. You're merely shining their shoes. And if you want to continue to do that, fine. Where are you from?' And I said, 'Well, I'm from Ohio originally. I grew up there.'

"He said, 'Oh, start doing those characters that you grew up with.' And that's when I turned my whole thing around."

Jonathan Winters spoke with Weekend Edition Saturday in September 2000.

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