The outlandish improvisational comedian inspired Robin Williams and Jim Carrey
Credit: Silver Screen/Getty

Jonathan Winters – an improvisational genius and the comedic spiritual godfather to a generation of younger comics, including Robin Williams, Jim Carrey and the late Andy Kaufman – died of natural causes Thursday night. He was surrounded by family and friends at his home in Montecito, Calif., the Associated Press reports. He was 87.

Tweeted Steve Martin on Friday: “Goodbye, Jonath[a]n Winters. You were not only one of the greats, but one of the great greats.”

Known for the wild array of characters he could create in a flash – his naughty old lady Maude Frickert was a Tonight Show headliner who routinely broke up hosts Jack Paar and then Johnny Carson – Winters, playing doltish truck driver Lennie Pike, stole the all-star 1963 movie It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World out from every name comedian who was breathing at the time.

A Dayton, Ohio, native, Winters dropped out of high school to join the Marines, with whom he served in the Pacific during World War II. After the war he deejayed on radio station back in his hometown, where he could never quite deliver the weather in a straight fashion.

“About the third day, I decided that I’d interview myself,” he recalled years later for a PBS special, Pioneers of Television, saying he wished “to gamble a little bit with this so-called career. So I said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we have a wonderful gentleman here Sir Edmund Denler. [He’s] flown a secret flight aircraft all the way from London to Labrador, Labrador here to Dayton, and just wonderful to have you here, sir ‘ ”

The radio station owner was not amused. The radio audience was.

A shot on CBS’s Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts led to other spots on network TV and then on Broadway, in the revue Almanac. His true launching pad, in 1956, was the weekly TV variety The Jonathan Winters Show. And though it was hard to contain him on the small screen – records and clubs were his forte – Winters returned the medium back in 1981, to play Robin William’s son on the last season of ABC’s Mork and Mindy.

Truly a comedian’s comedian, Winters received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 1999. On a personal level, his wife of 60 years, Eileen, died, age 84, in early 2009, according to a friend’s published remembrance. He is survived by two children, Lucinda Winters and Jay Winters.

Later in life, Winters credited much of his early success to the savvy TV hosts who grabbed him and put him on the air in the early ’60s. According to Winters, they would say: “One thing about Winters, you never knew what he’s going to say or do.”

He added: “I don’t think they sweated my being dirty or embarrassing they knew I would be funny.”

And was he ever.

Remembering Jonathan Winters