By Todd Leopold
(CNN) — Jonathan Winters, the wildly inventive actor and comedian who appeared in such films as “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and “The Loved One” and played Robin Williams’ son on the TV show “Mork & Mindy,” has died. He was 87.
Winters died Thursday evening of natural causes at his home in Montecito, California, according to business associate Joe Petro III.
Winters was known for his manic energy and comic irreverence, switching characters the way other people flick on light switches. His routines were full of non sequiturs and surreal jokes. Williams, in particular, often credited him as a great influence.
Indeed, he was greatly admired by comedians in general and was awarded the Mark Twain Prize — which goes to outstanding humorists — in 1999.
“Genius” was a common touchstone as comedians reacted to Winters’ death.
“R.I.P Jonathan Winters,” tweeted comedian and filmmaker Albert Brooks. “Beyond funny, he invented a new category of comedic genius.”
“Had a great run. Actual genius,” tweeted Kevin Pollak.
“A genius and the greatest improvisational comedian of all time,” tweeted Richard Lewis.
Though he never had a breakout starring role, over the years his appearances on various TV shows made him a beloved figure in the entertainment world. He was a favorite guest on “The Tonight Show” — particularly in the early ’60s when it was hosted by Jack Paar — and turned up on the game show “The Hollywood Squares,” Dean Martin’s celebrity roasts and countless variety shows.
He had a regular role on the final season of “Mork & Mindy,” putting him together with Williams, who played the space visitor Mork from Ork. Winters played Mearth, Mork’s son, who — having hatched from a giant egg — was the size of an adult but had the mind of a child. The attempted pairing of Williams and Winters was expected to create comic fireworks, but the show’s already falling ratings didn’t pick up, and “Mork & Mindy” was canceled in 1982.
He showed his range with the occasional dramatic role. In an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” he played a shark-like pool player. In the 1994 film “The Shadow” — with Alec Baldwin as the hero with the ability to cloud men’s minds — he played Baldwin’s police chief uncle.
He was also a prolific recording artist, producing more than a dozen comedy records, including 1960’s “The Wonderful World of Jonathan Winters.”
Admirers agreed: He was one of a kind.
“The first time I saw Jonathan Winters perform, I thought I might as well quit the business,” tweeted Dick Van Dyke after hearing of Winters’ death. “Because, I could never be as brilliant.”
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