Monday, August 11, 2014

I Remember Robin Williams

I'm greatly distressed over the apparent suicide of clown extraordinaire Robin Williams.
But am I surprised? Well, no.
I interviewed him early in his remarkable career --in 1978, in fact, as he shot to fame as the funny alien in the hit series Mork And Mindy.
There were a few random encounters after that but to me he always remained an elusive personality to write about.
I remember first encountering him at an ABC press party in Los Angeles for visiting TV critics.
First up there was Jonathan Winters who breezed through 20 minutes of stand up in various disguises before sitting down to an ovation from the critics.
Williams who was then guesting as Mork on Happy Days out did the character comedian he idolized with manic moves that lasted a half hour and left him totally exhausted.
"I want whatever he's smoking" said Winters in an audible stage whisper.
Winters frequently guested on Mork And Mindy and the two would match each other with improvised gags until the cameraman ran out of film.
Off camera Williams was contemplative and not funny a bit.
He was born into a politically influential family that had a lot of wealth--his father was an executive with the Ford motor company.
He studied political science at university before jumping to Julliard for an acting career.
He first tackled stand up comedy as performance art on the streets of San Francisco where his style was decidedly raunchy.
ABC talent scouts cleaned him up and he shone in the four seasons of Mork and Mindy.
Like other comics I've interviewed he was soft spoken in real life.
I interviewed Bob Hope several times who approached comedy like a business executive --Hope showed me the miles of cabinets where he had every joke he'd ever cracked cross referenced on index cards.
Lucille Ball said she lacked a funny bone --"mine has dollar signs on it" --and she showed that side by becoming the first female head of a major L.A. studio (Desilu).
Johnny Carson warned he'd walk out if I asked anything personal.
Red Skelton said he'd had years of fighting the demons of depression.
For Williams it started with cocaine addiction which made him very high followed by incredible lows.
I thought of another gifted comic I'd interviewed in those days: Freddie Prinze who shot himself in his ABC dressing room in 1977.
Like so many comics Williams proved an amazingly deft dramatic actor in such movies as Moscow On The Hudson (1984), Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Dead Poets Society (1989), Awakenings (1990)
, Good Will Hunting (1997).
But people loved him best in those years as Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) --he had planned on reprising his role in a sequel.
Last season CBS put him in a shaky comedy The Crazy Ones (2013) which lasted but a year --Williams looked desperate as he battled predictable situations.
He has three new movies awaiting release but in recent months was battling alcoholism.
In recent years Williams battled serious illnesses including a heart operation in 2013 to replace his aortic valve.
His publicist said he had been battling severe depression in recent months.

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