Jonathan Winters, who died Friday at 87, was a beloved comic whirlwind for generations, one whose influence on movie comics from Robin Williams to Jim Carrey to Sacha Baron Cohen is very apparent.

So why didn't he make a bigger splash on film? The paradox of WInters's 50-year screen career was that film wasn't a big enough medium to contain him. He did his best work on records and TV, where his surrealist, improvisational genius could run free in short bursts. In movies, however, he was often constrained to a single character (though in some animated films, he played as many as three), which is why many of his best films are ones where he appeared in brief but unforgettable cameos.

The one movie that did give him a broad enough canvas was actually his first major role, the sprawling "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," where he was a larger-than-life force of nature. But even when invisible and restrained, as he was in his role as Papa Smurf in the recent "The Smurfs," he was an unforgettable comic presence, one hinting at a much grander, more eccentric life beyond what he could display on screen.
CATEGORIES Movies