Tales from the Vault: Jonathan Winters Takes his Talents to the Gridiron

Follies, Tales from the Vault

LAST MONTH LEGENDARY COMIC JONATHAN WINTERS DIED AT THE AGE OF 87.  FAMOUS FOR “IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD, WORLD,” AND A STAPLE OF STAGE AND SCREEN FOR DECADES, WINTERS WAS WIDELY KNOWN FOR HIS APPEARANCES ON THE LATE NIGHT TELEVISION CIRCUIT.  PERHAPS LESSER KNOWN IS THAT HE’S ALSO A PART OF THE NFL FILMS LIBRARY, THANKS TO HIS WORK ON A GROUND-BREAKING INSTALLMENT OF ONE OF THE COMPANY’S OLDEST FORMS – THE FOOTBALL FOLLIES.

In the summer of 1986 NFL Films producers Dave Plaut and Dave Douglas began mapping out an experimental NFL Films follies feature.  Plaut came up with the idea of creating a parody of an all-football network that programmed football-centric versions of all the most popular TV genres of the time.

“We envisioned parodies or satires of the particular nuances of those genres,” said Plaut, a Senior Producer who has been with Films since 1976.  To make their vision come to life, Plaut and Douglas needed a unique and talented cast.  The route they chose, however, was to hire one unique talent who could play an entire cast.

“Jonathan Winters was selected for the film we were doing because he had these skills that we felt lent themselves to our project”, says Plaut. “His improvisational abilities…to be able to create characters and situations off the top of his head within seconds after being told what the premise was…I’ve never seen anybody like that before.”

When NFL Films approached  Winters in 1987 about starring in their unique Football Follies film, he was in the midst of  one of his many career resurgences, this one due to the popularity of his work on the 80’s sitcom “Mork and Mindy.”  When the makers of America’s football movies began production with Winters, Plaut says they found a comic who could be summed up in two tiny Latin words:  “sui generis”, or, one of a kind.

“Even at lunch time…he would often entertain the crew with stories or he would just go into character. We had the camera rolling constantly on set…to my recollection that’s the only time on any project I’ve ever worked on where we just kept the cameras constantly rolling. Takes were blown because he would do something that was so outrageous that a camera guy or sound guy or makeup person couldn’t suppress their laughter.”

Plaut and Douglas never actually wrote a script for the film. They came up with a premise, found the footage, and carefully planned the contours of each of the two-dozen or so sketches. Winters was often told about a sketch only a half hour or so before shooting because there was so much setup involved. They gave Winters a very general outline of what they wanted and let him go to work.

“It was about as avant garde as NFL Films could be at the time. You really didn’t know what you were getting and some of the stuff was so weird that we weren’t sure whether we could use it,” says Plaut.

Winters improv talent is legendary. “Winters was a master of taking inanimate objects and doing odd things with them to get laughs,” says Plaut. “Almost all of his riffs were done in one, maybe two takes and that was it, because what he gave us was so good.”

So how did the late Steve Sabol—long time NFL Films president—feel about this film? Says Plaut: “He was skeptical that it would work as it was so out there…but he always encouraged us to take chances and to take risks.  (Steve) didn’t laugh at some bits, laughed pretty hard at others, but I think on balance he was happy with the work we’d done.”

NFL TV Follies  was distributed as a home video and was well reviewed by a number of national publications. “It sold very well,” says Plaut. “And Jonathan Winters being in it was a key reason why. He was such a unique talent and brought a lot to the project that nobody else we could have hired could have done.”

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