Jonathan Winters: Three is an audience
HIS FACE has the quivering consistency of unrestrained Jell-O. Great white teeth march across his cavernous mouth like tombstones across a cave entrance.
His stumpy body looks as if a grand piano had fallen on it.
Two sad brown eyes move in his moonish face, now flicking shiftily like those of a man at a tennis match, now widening to incredible proportions as if he were trying to take in his giddy world at one glance.
This is Jonathan Winters, a comic genius for whom the world is truly a stage, and for whom three is not a crowd, but an audience.
DURING a recent stopover in Frankfurt, Germany, where he acted as master of ceremonies in the television filming of the Holiday on Ice show, the controversial 40-year-old cut an improbable but dominating figure among the gilded and sequined lovelies under the Festhalle's great dome.
But the onset of Winters was most readily apparent when he laid aside his skeletal script and became Everyman, a bewildering array of characters awesome for their comic humanity.
Now he was a bullfighter.. . "Toro! Toro! Ole!" an imaginary pass at an imaginary bull, complete with intense, teeth-bared expression, then a bow to a crowd whose arena-filling roar came solely from his own mouth, and, in mid-bow, a leap in the air, hands clutching gored seat of his britches.
Then he was a lady tourist, appearing as a television guest for the National Geographic, fingering the strung beads of an Oriental-doorway stage prop, claiming the beads were a little thing she picked up on her visit to the native kingdom of Framboodooley (approximate identification), then waving her silly hands and squeaking of another souvenir she had brought back — one of Framboodooley's natives.
Just as abruptly Winters became the native, his face contorted in a heavy scowl while he recited a fantastic string of gibberish.
ALL OF THIS, and more, was improvised, each role strictly for the stage crew and anyone around who would care to listen and watch, while a pair of Hollywood types named Mary and Max wearily shook their heads and tried unsucessfully to keep Winters concentrating on the business at hand — emceeing the ice show.
When Max told Jonathan that his suit was too dark, Winters' face was a mask of agony: "Suit too dark? You can't mean it, man. I've been wearing it for five years! What do you think I am, Andy Williams?" Max put a quieting hand on Winters' shoulder, evoking from the plastic face a grimace of superhuman distaste: "Keep your hands off me; you're always trying to win me over by touching me, Max!"
After which Winters would unleash a knee-slapping guffaw and genially agree to go along with any of the seemingly infinite changes and adjustments needed to achieve the demanded perfection of the television show.
What manner of man is this Winters, whose amazingly creative mind could carry him though five retakes of one "Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest" scene without repeating himself once?
To Winters, a man who admits he has had his problems, "This is a sweet life. I can go where I please, do what I like. It's wonderful. I was in the hospital a few years back for eight months, and it gives you time to think. I began realizing how lucky I was. Life is really sweet, you know?"
SHOW BIZ for Jonathan started 18 years ago in his native Dayton, Ohio, when his artist wife, Eileen (whom he met when they both attended an art institute), suggested one evening that he enter an amateur show at one of the local theaters.
"I won the wrist watch," he recalls, "and, after talking it over with Eileen, I went off to New York to see if I could make a go of it. For seven months I was alone in New York, just a hick from the sticks — I was in construction work when I left Ohio and these hands have known labor — and finally I was able to send for Eileen. You know, I hit New York with only $56.46 in my pocket?"
Rubbing his hands in remembered warmth, he recalled sitting around a potbellied stove in their small apartment during the difficult early days. And those nightclub years had tragic aspects. In an earlier interview, Winters admitted to being "bombed most of the time" then.
The stories of his West Coast forays into the public eye with such things as directing traffic in Los Angeles and "arresting" passersby in San Francisco while dressed as a pirate led him to occupy a niche as one of the more bizarre figures in the entertainment business.
And it also spurred his climb onto the wagon, where he has remained for eight years while building a solid career on television, records, in night clubs and in the movies ("It's Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," "The Russians Are Coming," "The Loved One").
"Know what I'd like to do?" he said. "I'd like to make a completely improvised movie. Give a situation, and let your people improvise. But you need the right people." Turning to an English listener, he said, "Peter Ustinov could do that kind of thing; he has a gift for improvisation. Peter Sellers couldn't. Don't get me wrong; Sellers is great, but he's not an improviser."
WHILE the quality of life has changed for Jonathan and Eileen since their New York days — they now live in posh Toluca Lake, Calif., with son Jonathan Jr. (Jay), 16, and Lucinda, 10 — Winters still indulges in an occasional caprice.
One such came in the company of gap-toothed English comedian Terry-Thomas. One night they went together into a club, each dressed as an RAF officer. Fascinated, a woman next to Winters' (Winters told the story complete with muggings, sound effects, etc.) asked if they were British, and Winters admitted — in his finest English accent — that Terry-Thomas was, but that he, Winters, was Australian.
Same difference, said the lady. Not so, said Winters, telling the woman that his ancestors were sent to Australia from England for petty crimes, and that his father and grandfather were murderers.
While Terry-Thomas all but choked, Winters calmly told the woman that his father and grandfather made their living by cutting the tails off kangaroos, bleaching the tails in the hot Australian sun, then selling them in Hong Kong as ivory tusks.
Any man who could conjure up the notion of bleached kangaroo tails or dispassionately orate on an electric orange (as he did later) has got to be a most extraordinary fella.
And Jonathan Winters, who happily confesses to being one of the world's great people-watchers, is extraordinary. He's become extraordinary by his talent for exploiting and satirizing the ordinary.