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Jonathan Winters Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest—but at 50 Has Finally Landed Happily

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The uniqueness of Jonathan Winters is that he is the one U.S. comic who has personally flown over the cuckoo’s nest. He has done time with Alcoholics Anonymous and all three TV networks, and eight months in a California sanitarium. In the process, Winters has emerged at age 50 as the most compassionate of satirists, with a whole rep company milling in his moon of a head.

Ask Jonathan about the institution of marriage, for example, and out pops one of those characters—but not before a touching truth. “A lot has to do with how much you love one another,” he begins, “and how much you’ve been through.” (He has himself stayed with the same wife for 27 years, the one constancy in his mad, mad world.) “I think there are some men who want to remain married, and a lot who want to eat their cake and have it too. There are others who find a child of the night.”

Suddenly he slips into someone else’s nightshirt. “Uh, Marge,” he intones into an imaginary telephone. “I don’t believe I can get back.” Then, voice turning soprano, he becomes Marge: “Oh, are you snowed in out there in Rochester?” Husband: “Well, no, there’s this wonderful child of the night here. She’s 26.” Marge: “You’ve got to be kidding. You have daughters that age!” Husband: “I know, Marge, but I think I’ll just stay here in Rochester.” Finally, slipping back into his own itchy skin, Winters observes, “I have a good marriage and a good gal. But I don’t want to be possessed or chained like a dog. I have to have an opening in the fence. If I do, I’ll go down the road apiece, but I’ll be back. I’m a loner to a certain extent,” he concludes. “There has to be a lot of trust.”

Nielsen America has never fully trusted Winters or found a permanent time slot for his painful impressions of reality. Having established his name as a late-night substitute for Jack Paar, he now is buried in two-minute spots on ABC’s still scrambling TV breakfast club, Good Morning, America. He also makes a rare prime-time appearance Jan. 21 headlining NBC’s Jonathan Winters Presents Two Hundred Years of American Humor. Along the way, his own series on that network was canceled after one season in 1957, although he lasted two seasons apiece on CBS (1967-69) and in syndication (1974-75). His only long run has been the eight years shilling for Hefty garbage bags. Thus Winters’ autobiography-in-progress is titled I Couldn’t Wait for Success—I Went on Ahead without It. (It is dedicated “To all the people who are overly sensitive. Never be ashamed of it. It beats being bitter.”)

Probably the most fitting appreciation of his travail came from the Dayton (Ohio) Art Institute, where he dropped out in 1949 after two and a half years but last spring received a bachelor’s degree for “life experience.” His troubles began, he recalls, because “my parents were very heavy on me.” His mother, a radio actress in Ohio, was divorced from his investment broker father when he was 7. “A lot of boys and girls have been down the same path,” says Jonathan, “but I was expecting love, and it wasn’t there, and that threw me.” When his dad died a few months ago, Winters confesses that he was unable to find a tear. So, if nothing else, Winters was determined not to be that kind of parent with his own kids, Jonathan Jr. (called Jay), now 25, and Lucinda, 19. “You know,” he says, “I quit the road after seven years of nightclubs. That’s Spartacus time—they put you in a ring and throw things at you. I was on the horn with my agent arranging to go on the road again when Jay, who was 12 years old, said, ‘I just don’t dig fishing alone.’ That was it. ZZZPT. It was over for a dozen years. I had to do it or I would have lost him. Now we have a great relationship.”

Maybe it helps that Winters believes, “I’m still a little boy, and I don’t know a man who isn’t.” But he has come to peace with his past, and goes home to Ohio yearly. His whiskey (if not his weight) problem is behind him—he never travels without a six pack of Diet Pepsi in a brown bag. As a one-sixteenth Cherokee (“If I had a nosebleed, I’d be out of the tribe”), Jonathan has been active in Indian causes—narrating an upcoming documentary for PBS, rounding up abandoned clothing from dry cleaners and organizing the first Indian tennis tournament.

Winters says he is doing the current ABC bits “to pay the pool man and the guy who cuts the grass” at his home around the corner from Bob Hope in Toluca Lake. He also has a beach property well north of Malibu chic. Nevertheless, he identifies not with “the green [moneyed] people with frightening bank accounts,” he claims, but with the “people who are wiped out, physically and mentally, and make up for it by doing artwork or embroidery or writing poetry alone in their rooms.”

Winters’ own escape is painting, which, like his comedy, is in the humane satirical school. His favorites are Dali and Magritte. “Surrealists have always paid some heavy dues,” Jonathan reflects. “They give you an extra goody—themselves.”