Jonathan Winters takes a glass of water, and in his irrepressibly bent mind, it's immediately transformed into One Drink Too Many. ''I can't stay very long we want to get on the 101 [freeway],'' he slurs, slipping into a pickled persona. ''I hit a kid the other day. And that was the day I was sober. I was coming out of therapy for drunkenness down at the Betty Ford Center. Imagine, I knocked over a kid as I was pulling into the 76 station to fuel up.''
Given the lightning speed with which the 68-year-old comedian can free-associate a whole gallery of such warped eccentrics, you'd hardly expect to find him boasting that in his two current film appearances he didn't ad-lib a single line. ''I stuck to the script,'' he proudly says of his roles as one of Fred's laid-off coworkers in The Flintstones and as the epicurean police commissioner Wainwright Barth in The Shadow.
Winning an Emmy his first in 1991 for his role as a curmudgeonly granddad in the short-lived sitcom Davis Rules reignited his career. ''It was a big break for me,'' he says. But sitting in his Toluca Lake, Calif., home, Winters talks as if he's still trying to prove himself. ''I know many people in the upper echelons say, 'Can we trust Winters in regard to his lines? Is he too wild a guy to handle a dramatic role?''' he admits. ''I loved working with a top actor like Alec [Baldwin] on The Shadow. The discipline is incredible. You have to lock yourself in, look into his eyes, and get the lines out. I considered it basically tongue-in-cheek, but I played it serious instead of playing it broad and making him a fop.''
It's almost as if he's invented another new character Jonathan Winters, serious actor.