Certifiably Jonathan

Ohio comedy legend Jonathan Winters honored in film

By Rick Eichhorn

Photo: [l-r] comedian Jonathan Winters, executive producer Matt Fortnow and comedian Robin Williams

Comedian Jonathan Winters carried a buckeye in his pocket every day, everywhere he went. Ever the collector, the buckeye was most likely indicative of the strong bond he felt with his home state. And, just perhaps, in his whacky world of his priceless mementos, that buckeye was one of his most beloved possessions.

“He was very proud to be from Ohio,” Matt Fortnow, former music attorney and producer of the film “Certifiably Jonathan,” said, adding that Winters was always pulling the buckeye out of his pocket to show visitors.

During the making of the film, Fortnow had the opportunity to spend countless hours with Winters over the course of several years. Fortnow said he would show up with a small film crew at Winters’ Montecito, California home at around nine or ten in the morning, and the first words out of Winters mouth would usually be, “Okay, it’s time for lunch.”

Now, if anyone in the crew would imply that it seemed a bit early for lunch, that they had just arrived, Winters would respond, “I don’t work unless you buy me lunch.”

That was probably a ruse to get the crew into a restaurant, where Winters could unleash his comedic genius. Fortnow related how Winters would go into all these different characters and perform for all the other tables in the place. In fact, “Certifiably Jonathan” which was conceived as a true documentary, was quickly “hijacked” by Winters’ wonderful mind, which sort of sabotaged the film by giving it a story line, taking it out of the documentary realm.

“We were okay with it,” Fortnow said of Winters’ taking charge. “The whole project took a turn following Jonathan’s crazy mind.”

The film is about Winters’ pursuit for recognition as a painter, but then losing his sense of humor when his favorite painting is stolen. Robin Williams, Sarah Silverman, Howie Mandel and others help him on a quest to get his comic mojo back. The movie is on DVD and available on Netflix, Movies on Demand and online stores.

Winters was born in Bellbrook, Ohio and was a descendant of Valentine Winters, who founded Winters National Bank. His mother, Alice Kilgore Rodgers, became a radio personality, and his father, Jonathan Harshman Winters II was an insurance agent and investment broker. According to Wikipedia, Winters told Jim Lehrer in a 1999 interview, “Mother and dad didn’t understand me; I didn’t understand them.”

When Winters was seven, his parents separated, and he was sent to live with his maternal grandmother in Springfield. During his childhood, he was often alone in his room. That’s where he devised all sorts of characters and sound effects, such as a spot-on imitation of an Indy 500 race. After 2 and a half years in the Marine Corps, stationed in the Pacific Theater during World War II, he attended Kenyon College with the intention of becoming an illustrator. An accomplished artist, he went on to study cartooning at the Dayton Art Institute where he met his wife, Eileen Schauder. They were married for 60 years, until her death in 2009.

As the story goes, one day he lost his watch, and the couple was too broke to afford a new one. Fate intervened when his wife noticed an ad for a local talent contest, and the top prize was a new watch. She urged him to enter; although he balked, wondering what his “talent” would be (Taking out an easel and painting on stage?) She told him to just do his crazy characters, and the rest is history.

As Fortnow picked up the story, after Winters won the talent contest, he soon got a job at a local radio station as a newscaster. Soon, he began doing interviews, but not just any interviews. His guests were prominent nuclear physicists, ace pilots and other famous “notables.” When his boss inquired where he was getting all these guests, Winters would casually make up some quick aside such as “the bar downstairs.” It wasn’t long before the station discovered that Winters was doing the “interviews” all by himself. He was doing all the voices himself, and that all the people were in Winters’ imagination. According to Fortnow, he was promptly fired.

Whether the story is myth or legend, embellished or not, Winters moved to New York City with a mere $56 in his pocket. He hit the comedy circuit, secured a manager and started getting guest spots on television shows. With host Jack Paar on the Tonight Show, Winters pulled off some classic comedy bits, which can still be seen on YouTube. One time, Paar simply handed Winters a stick, and Winters went off with several minutes of now legendary “shtick.” Legend has it, Paar and Winters later had a falling out when Winters prank called him, pretending to be President Kennedy, and Paar bought it hook, line and sinker.

In addition to countless guest spots on a number of TV shows, Winters became a regular on Mork and Mindy, playing Robin Williams’ son, and starred in several movies, most notably, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” He received 11 Grammy nominations for Best Comedy Album, wining one, won an Emmy for his supporting role in the TV show Davis Rules, and was the second recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Like a lot of people of his generation, Fortnow bonded with his father by watching Winters on TV and laughing together at the side-splitting routines. Naturally, Fortnow related that it was a fantastic treat to be able to spend time with Winters as the comedian approached the twilight of his life. Fortnow described the comic’s home as a “museum” filled with artwork – his own and other great artists’ – as well as antique toys and countless collectables. The bathroom alone displayed autographs from Babe Ruth and, Sophia Loren as well as Winters Bank checks signed by the Wright Brothers.

But even more than giving Fortnow, his father and countless audiences unforgettable comedy routines, Winters influenced two generations of comedians. Moreover, many people feel that Winters has been somewhat forgotten.

“We wanted to bring some recognition to him,” Fortnow said. “He changed comedy. He invented improv comedy. He invented a form of comedy that was before its time.”

Fortnow also wants to introduce a new generation to Winters. In addition to the film, he has started a petition urging President Obama to declare a National Jonathan Winters Day. To sign the petition, go to change.org, click on browse, and search Jonathan Winters.

“He had no idea how many fans he had, and how they felt about him,” Fortnow said.

“Certifiably Jonathan” is available on Movies On Demand, Netflix and on DVD. For more information, please visit certifiablyjonathan.com. To view the petition to declare National Jonathan Winters Day, please visit change.org.

Reach DCP freelance writer Rick Eichhorn at RickEichhorn@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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