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When I drove up to interview Jonathan Winters at his home in Santa Barbara on March 23rd, 2011, I had no idea what to expect. I was told that some days were better than others, that some times of day were better than others and that you were never sure what state of mind he would be in. He was 86 years old. Winters was a comedy genius beyond description, he was an original, an archetype, the real and only deal. I grew up seeing him on TV and in movies. He was hilarious, unpredictable and inspired. He was mythic. I was nervous. I had heard about the breakdown, the mental hospital, the depression, the drinking, but that was all part of his past, what he had gone through, what he had endured and survived. Winters was possessed by a comic muse that was perpetually at war with the darkness in his mind. He rode the edge of that darkness and mined it for the voices of the characters that spoke through him, that kept him company, that kept him sane and that made the rest of us convulse in a type of laughter only he was capable of finding within us. No one was like him. No one will ever be like him.
I can’t say that I knew him. I didn’t. I met him twice. The first time I was a guy with a mic for Comedy Central at the Montreal Comedy Festival in the early nineties. I was walking around interviewing people. There was a gala event and I was stopping entertainers who were going in to ask them questions. I walked up to Jonathan Winters and asked the question I was told to ask. Before I could get it out of my mouth I noticed Dick Cavett run up to the sound guy in my crew. I saw the sound guy take off his headphones and give them to Cavett. I turned to Jonathan and said something like, “Mr. Winters, have you seen any young performers that have made an impression on you or that you’ve enjoyed here at the festival?” He looked at me with grave seriousness and said, “I haven’t been able to get out to many shows. My wife is ill in the hotel room. I’ve been taking care of her.” It was not the answer I was expecting. I tried to be polite and appropriate and said, “I’m sorry to hear that.” He looked at me with the same stern earnestness and said, “I shouldn’t have flown her in air cargo. It's cold and there are animals down there.” At that moment I heard Dick Cavett howling with laughter behind me. I had been had. It was an honor.
The second time I met Winters I was in his home. We sat and talked for over an hour. He was frail but still larger than life. He walked with a cane. He sat down in a large-cushioned chair. I sat across from him. We talked about all of it: His childhood, the marines, his radio days, his breakdown, his movie career, depression, his comedy and his time in a mental hospital. He riffed and chatted with the humor, intensity and range that seemed to be timeless within him. He went in and out of characters. I was in awe, mostly speechless and laughing. It was a good day for him. It was an amazing day for me. I will never forget it. When his nurse came in and told me it was time for him to eat I figured I was leaving. He stood up and said, “I want to show you something.” I said, “Okay.” We walked slowly down a long hallway along a wall filled with dozens of pictures from Jonathan’s life. There were photos of family, movie sets, of him and other entertainers. It was a history of a man and a life in show business. He stopped halfway down the hall and he pointed at a very old photo that seemed to be lost among the rest. It was of a young boy with a dog. Jonathan paused, pointed at it and said, “I loved that dog.” He looked deeply sad for a moment. We continued walking towards a room at the end of the hall. We stood in the entrance of the room. In it was a four-post bed, Jonathan’s bed, and hanging from the ceiling were what seemed like hundreds of model planes of all kinds. Jonathan looked at me, smiled and said, “Those are my planes.” He gazed up at them with the awe and excitement of a child. It was beautiful.