Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Gilbert Gottfried is a comedian and actor.
(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?
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.
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.
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.