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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The country has lost one of its most imaginative and influential comedians. Jonathan Winters died yesterday, at the age of 87.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Winters had a lovable, hang-dog face, and a sense of play to rival the most precocious 2-year-old. Give Jonathan Winters a prop - even just a stick, as Jack Paar did on his TV show in 1964...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JACK PAAR: Do something with the stick. I want you to do a routine with the stick. Give them anything.

CORNISH: And in seconds, he'd have a whip, a yardstick, a violin, a sword - and a character to go with each.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JONATHAN WINTERS: Send in those big cats... (tapping stick) children, I want you to pay attention now... I should like to play for you now ... (speaking foreign language)...

BLOCK: Jonathan Winters didn't do jokes; he did characters, whole galleries of them - effeminate dress designer Lance Lovegard; the world's oldest hula dancer, Princess Leilani-nani; and this pet store owner.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

WINTERS: (As character) I can give you that kangaroo over there for ten and a half. Come all the way from Australia; most of them do. I got him as far as Muncie, and he fell off a flat car and broke his tail. Now, you know, most of them sit back there on their tails, like this. But this one, you've got to lean against something.

CORNISH: With that voice came spot-on facial impressions. Winter's unpredictability was both remarkable and novel, years before Robin Williams and Jim Carey took manic mainstream. Again, here's Jack Paar.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PAAR: If Jonathan Winters is ever accused of anything, he's got the perfect alibi. He was someone else at the time.

(AUDIENCE LAUGHTER)

PAAR: When I first saw him before the show, he was still trying to decide whether he'd - to be a drunken Eskimo, the queen of the Vikings, or a door knob.

CORNISH: Jonathan Winters did not have an easy life. He suffered a mental breakdown onstage in 1959, and spent time in a psychiatric hospital; turning down shock treatment when doctors told him it would erase some of the pain he was feeling, as he told NPR's Pat Dowell.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

WINTERS: I need that pain - whatever it is - to call upon it, from time to time.

BLOCK: That's comedian Jonathan Winters. He died yesterday at his home in California. He was 87. A Marine Corps veteran, he's expected to have his ashes scattered at sea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

WINTERS: I did a thing that a lot of us probably would like to do - maybe a few of us don't, I don't know. I'll just have to ask you. Did you ever undress in front of a dog?

(AUDIENCE LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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