Friday, April 12, 2013

My Day With Jonathan Winters

I have a Jonathan Winters story.

That does not make me unique.

Pretty much everyone in Hollywood has a Jonathan Winters story.

For a guy who could fall off of the face of the Earth for years at a time, when he was present, he got around.

The year was 1990 (or thereabout) and I had been hired to work on an industrial film for a major retail chain.

Even if you have never heard the term "industrial film," if you have ever worked in any sort of corporate atmosphere, you have probably been subjected to one or more of these steaming piles of art. An industrial film is not industrial in the sense that it is a large piece of machinery or an extra corrosive solvent. In this case, "industrial" means "of and for the industry."

Industrial films are movies produced to be shown "in house" at events such as employee orientation classes, stockholder meetings and sexual harassment seminars.

They tend to cover subjects like "Why you should be totes pumped to be a part of our corporate 'family,'" "Why that little problem with the FTC, last quarter, is nothing to be worried about," and, "Sexual harassment, BAD!"

Industrial films are as soul suckingly tedious as the name implies.

Larger, wealthier companies often hire "name" celebrities, especially comedians, to appear in their films, providing skits and narration intended to distract the viewer from the banality of the film's overall content.

On this day, we were going to put lipstick on this particular pig with the help of the comedy legend, Jonathan Winters.

When I arrived at a soundstage in the L.A. South Bay that morning, I was called, along with the rest of the crew, to a quick production meeting before Jonathan arrived.

We were presented with a list of rules for the day.

  1. Do not make eye contact with Mr. Winters.
  2. Do not engage in small talk with Mr. Winters.
  3. Do not leave equipment unattended.
  4. Avoid speaking to Mr. Winters, even if he speaks to you first.
  5. If Mr. Winters says something funny, do not laugh.
  6. All direct communication between production and Mr. Winters will be handled by the director.
In Hollywood we sometimes see lists like this one. They usually accompany an aging diva, a self-important "method" actor, or a certain, iconic comedian who insists on being addressed by the title "Doctor."

Jonathan was none of these people. And, these rules didn't exist for the usual reasons.

As I said earlier... Everyone in Hollywood has a Jonathan Winters story.

So, we all knew and understood.

Jonathan Winters, famously, had the Attention Deficit Disorder of a hyperactive four-year-old at Disneyland.

The most innocuous comment, innocent glance or momentarily abandoned, potential prop could send Jonathan into a manic blast of improv that could turn what should be an easy six hour shoot into an 18 hour day from Hell.

Albeit an entertaining one.

We got it.

But, as a make-up artist, this put a lot of pressure on me.

There was no way around it. In order to do my job, I had to make eye contact. I had to engage with him.

Hell, I had to physically touch the man.

I was sure that I was screwed.

Jonathan arrived 15 minutes before his call time and after exchanging pleasantries with the director, he reported straight to my make-up chair.

He was charming and, yes, funny. And in every way, the consummate professional.

Not at all the Tasmanian Devil that I had expected.

As the day progressed, the crew followed the rules, Jonathan nailed every shot in one take and the day flew by.

In fact, in spite of four costume changes and a couple of improvisational digressions on Jonathan's part, we were set to finish shooting a full hour ahead of schedule.

Saving his most iconic character for last, I helped him pull on his wig as he transformed into...

                                                                   Maude Frickert.
One shot to go.

That's when it happened.

It was clear to me that Jonathan had played this game with film and TV crews before. And now, with one more shot to go, one hour ahead of schedule, he was done with that game.

He had been invisible to the crew the whole day.

And now, by God, he was going to get a reaction out of someone.

And like a predator on the Serengeti, he sussed out the most vulnerable of the herd.


I powdered the shine from his nose and forehead. And as I turned to walk off the set, Jonathan, fully in character, in full Maude Frickert drag, spoke.

Just loudly enough to be heard by everyone.



"Have you ever corn-holed an old lady?"

The dam burst. All of the awkward tension that had built up as the crew spent their day biting the insides of their cheeks until they were bloody, left the building.

Every one of us lost it.

And, we still wrapped an hour ahead of schedule.

I recovered.


Although, there is a small scar on my psyche. One caused by the mental image that he planted in my head, that day.

A visual that I now share with you.

Jonathan Winters died today at the age of 87, of natural causes.

He will be very much missed.

And as disturbing as it is, I will cherish the scar he left me, as a souvenir of my day with one of the greatest comic pioneers of our time.

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