Pioneers of Television

FULL EPISODE

Robin Williams Remembered

This tribute to actor and comedian Robin Williams features one of his last full-length interviews for the PIONEERS OF TELEVISION series, including never-before-seen comments on his life and comedic and dramatic work, as well as tributes to Williams by those who knew and worked with him, and clips from his career.

AIRED: September 09, 2014 | 0:55:20
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TRANSCRIPT

But when I met him, I just --

I fell in love with him.

She's really sweet and really funny in her own right.

It was just so much fun.

That was part of that time, I think.

You know, it was so huge so quickly.

The feedback, the love, the laughter just fed him.

It was just like it lit up his brain.

And how do you make sense of it all,

and part of it is laughter.

Pioneers of Television was made possible

[Gasp] My god, what a lovely shade of tweed!

Obviously this is the...

NARRATOR: It started here,

at the Comedy Store in Hollywood.

LOUIE ANDERSON: I think those very first audiences

here in the Comedy Store, when they saw Robin,

it was like seeing a tornado in person.

But I think at first they were just in awe

of that energy that he had when he came on.

WILLIAMS: Hello, how are you, take this off.

[Gasp] They haven't set yet.

Hello!

PAUL RODRIGUEZ: This room right here is hallowed ground

if you're a standup.

WILLIAMS: Look, look, look!

But Robin's like -- it was like they all gravitated,

the whole back wall, there was a who's who of comics.

CLARK: They said they knew immediately,

they knew the moment he opened his mouth and started speaking.

He wasn't just doing funny things.

He was doing it in a brand-new way.

NARRATOR: Robin Williams died on August 11, 2014,

at the age of 63.

His death saddened the world, but his work lives on.

You're exactly like him.

Oh, now, come on, now, man, look at that, look at that.

He looks like he does his hair with a Cuisinart.

[Laughter]

Seize the day.

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.

Hello!

Aaah!

[Babbling]

[Laughing]

You don't know about real loss, 'cause that only occurs

when you love something more than you love yourself.

Aah!

Aaaah!

[Laugh] Bully!

Got you, boy.

We made it in the World Cup.

Everybody plays it, not like the World Series,

because the French don't have a baseball team.

If they did, they would only have left field,

and no one would be safe.

[Laughter]

He wasn't safe!

What can you do, huh?

NARRATOR: It's a life and career worth celebrating.

[Insects chirping]

Young Robin Williams didn't have many friends,

but he did have toy soldiers and a non-stop imagination.

All alone in the attic, he staged unlikely scenes --

Indians fighting Nazis, or knights with airplanes.

An only child with largely absent parents,

no one else saw his creative spark,

until that day in high school, when Robin Williams

stepped onstage for the first time.

Senior year of high school,

they had like a class revue where they got to

make fun of the teachers, and I could do

a pretty dead-on impression of a couple of them,

and that was the beginning of, "Oh, this is nice."

NARRATOR: After high school, Williams went

to Claremont College to study political science,

but Claremont was an all-men's school.

WILLIAMS: It turns out the only place the ladies were

was the theater classes, and specifically

the improvisational theater classes.

And it was this beginning of getting laughs,

especially around improvising, which I went,

"You literally can create it there in that space?"

"Yep." "Okay, let's do this."

NARRATOR: Despite his skill creating laughter,

at age 21, Robin Williams didn't see comedy as his future.

He wanted to be an actor and moved to New York

after winning a special scholarship

to the prestigious Julliard Academy.

It was Christopher Reeve

and myself were the two students.

He was chosen because he's stunningly handsome

and I was chosen to be a character actor,

which is kind of,

"Little hairy boy, you be funny."

NARRATOR: At Julliard, Williams' mentor

was John Houseman, who had just finished

an Oscar-winning turn in The Paper Chase,

playing a character that wasn't far from his real-life persona.

Now that you're on your feet, Mr. Hart,

maybe the class will be able to understand you.

You are on your feet?

Yes, I'm on my feet.

Loudly, Mr. Hart.

Fill this room with your intelligence.

And we sat down with Houseman, and I remember --

I paraphrase this now, but he was basically saying,

"Mr. Reeve, Mr. Williams, the theater needs you.

You should go and be soldiers in the army of the theater.

Unless of course you can make

[bleep]-loads of cash doing films.

I'm going off to sell Volvos."

Smith Barney.

They make money the old fashioned way.

They earn it.

He was almost like the Wizard of Oz.

Like, "Don't look behind that curtain, boy."

But, you know, pretty astonishing character,

and all these people he'd gathered together

teach at Julliard because of him, I think,

because he was so kind of charismatic.

NARRATOR: After Julliard, Robin Williams returned

to San Francisco to find acting work,

but opportunities were limited.

He started out as an actor and discovered

he was sort of funny and sort of went that way.

NARRATOR: The turning point came when Williams

heard about a coffee house that offered comedy training.

They had workshops and eventually they would have,

you know, performances, which was great

because usually the performances followed

an evening of lesbian poetry,

so it always in an interesting audience

and really not ready for, "Don't do that joke.

That one may not play very well

with the ladies in comfortable shoes."

NARRATOR: The response to

his comedy performances in San Francisco

encouraged Williams to take the next step --

moving to Los Angeles to try his luck on stage,

in clubs, and improv groups, slowly working out the bits

that would later make him a star.

Before I read the poetry to you,

I wish to teach you one phrase in Russian

in case you ever go to Soviet Union.

It's necessary to know this phrase.

[Russian]

Why am I under arrest?

[Laughter]

First of all, I think they were shocked,

they were taken aback, like, "What is he doing?"

And they were, like, just, you know,

they didn't know what to do at first, I think.

First time an audience ever saw Robin Williams

was like the first time an audience

heard the Beatles or Led Zeppelin.

NARRATOR: At comedy clubs,

audiences are notoriously fickle,

but Williams learned from each performance.

Then you will get the hostile drunks,

you know, the idea of, you know, that,

and that becomes a whole other game of,

you know, how much do you engage them.

The heckler would be like an amateur

in front of a master.

There was no way to win.

Yeah, he loved it.

That was more input,

that was more stuff to work off of.

If they're really strange, you can bring them up the stage

and direct them in a movie, and that's just

really what they wanted, was to be part of the action,

so let's make 'em part of the action,

and that can be very dangerous, too,

'cause then they won't leave.

"I'm not leaving. This is going really well.

What about these?" "Put it back."

NARRATOR: It wasn't long before Williams realized

that his classical theater training at Julliard

paid dividends in the world of stand-up comedy.

I remember there was one show we did at a club

and it was the opening night of this club

and the mics all broke and the soundsystem went out

and the guys went, "What are we gonna do,

what are we gonna do," and, "I can talk loud,"

and that was the first time, and then it kind of also

determined my style of just being off-mic

and not a standing target, working the whole audience

and using that ability to project my voice

to kind of change the perspective in the room,

so that was the beginning of

using literally one of those skills.

Wandering over here, nice to wander back --

Thank you.

Oh, we're just going to work on this.

We're going to tease it a little.

How about those 49ers?

Do you think they're ever going to work again?

I don't know, let's look over --

Let's just look over here a second.

Okay, we're going to pull a little up here.

Hare Krishna, Hare -- sorry, right now she's going,

"I worked all day on that!"

Ooh, mmm, more smoke. I want to die.

He would always take a person's purse.

I remember him taking a purse and just like literally

doing like 15 or 20 minutes on what was in the purse.

He was ball lightning and he was author,

director, actor, at the speed of light.

He enjoyed the audience almost as much

as the audience enjoyed him.

He loved being there.

When it works, there's nothing better,

when it doesn't work, there's nothing worse.

Hence the metaphor is you kill or die.

There's no room to -- the metaphors are pretty brutal.

"You killed."

Or "you maimed."

You know, then when you don't do well, "You died."

NARRATOR: At the Comedy Store, Williams' reputation grew

and he began to rub shoulders with a new generation of comics.

Richard Pryor on in the main room.

Oh, god, and then, you know, people coming on --

Michael Richards coming onstage with little soldiers

and giving them directions, just bizarre stuff

going on in -- it was like a three-ring circus.

NARRATOR: One night, producer George Schlatter

stopped by the Comedy Store looking for talent

to cast in a revival of TV's Laugh-In.

I'd never seen anything like that,

and of course there never was anything like that.

Follow me, miss.

I'll take you to my room.

Don't be afraid, I'm the only normal one.

He had this straw hat and these coveralls, barefoot.

I saw your new movie,

and it inspired me to write a song for it.

It's called "The Hormone Blues."

-Oh, it's wonderful. -Would you like to hear it?

-Sure. -Okay.

♪ Went to bed last night with hair upon my chest♪

♪ I woke up this morning with a couple of beautiful breasts♪

♪ You know I'm changing♪

[Laughter]

Thank you, ma'am.

Wow. She touched me like she knew me, Marlene!

-Take a bath. -Yeah.

Jimmy Stewart was awestruck.

Jimmy Stewart just babbled.

Finally, Jimmy turned around and said, "Gloria!"

Want to grow weeds?

Yeah, big ones, tall ones, and then sell 'em.

[Laughter]

Who's going to eat weeds?

No, not eat 'em. It's another thing.

I don't -- I don't -- Gloria!

NARRATOR: The new Laugh-In failed,

but it helped Williams land a role

on another variety show, this one hosted by

the most innovative comic of the era, Richard Pryor.

What's your problem?

Oh, Mr. Mojo, I got a bad arm!

I can't move it!

He got a bad arm!

And he can't move it!

-[Crunching] -Aaaaah!

Let mojo heal it!

NARRATOR: Pryor's humor was far too unconventional

for NBC and the series didn't last long,

but Williams and Pryor became lifelong friends.

It's like seeing great jazz.

Nothing like a kid.

I love children, because they talk so straight.

You know, when you saw him kick it hard,

it would just be like broken-field running.

And you ask them questions, they never

answer you straight, right? They go, "What happened?"

"When? When? First, first thing" --

Or he'd find a character that would just be so...

so painful, but at the same time, so funny.

[Applause]

And "I didn't do it."

In the last couple of years before he died,

I went to visit him, and he had heavy MS,

and I did for him an African voodoo dance

to ward off ex-wives.

And I knew that it was great because his laugh,

he'd just go, "Aaaaah!"

I said, "[Babbling].

Alimony.

[Babbling, blows]

[Babbling]

Half.

Half, [babbling].

And you'd just see him go, "Aaaah!"

But the greatest thing of all was to get a laugh out of him

because it's like seeing Buddha crack it up.

It was wonderful, because you know if

you got a laugh from him -- and he would say,

"Damn you, it's funny! Aaaah!"

NARRATOR: After The Richard Pryor Show

ended in 1977, Robin Williams remained

a struggling unknown, until he auditioned

for a sitcom about 1950s suburban teens

called Happy Days.

Whoa, whoa, whoa!

[Laughter]

Greetings, Fonzie!

[Orkan]

Remember me, Mork from Ork?

You once called me "The Nutso From Outer Space."

[Laughter]

I think I must be dreaming or something like that, you know?

And I had this audition for ostensibly an alien

on Happy Days, and the reason that show

was being done -- people were, "An alien on Happy Days?"

No se ya se, not that kind of alien.

But the idea that it was just --

that Garry Marshall's son had seen Star Wars

and he thought,

"Can we have an alien on Happy Days?"

And that would have been a great --

I would have liked to have been there when Garry went,

"I don't know.

It's the '60s.

There was no abduction -- alien abductions,

and we're definitely not doing any rectal probes."

But the idea of an alien on Happy Days came from that,

and then they started auditioning

pretty much every standup comic they could find

to come in and play this alien.

We just started rehearsing like normal,

and then Robin Williams opened his mind and his mouth,

and I'm telling you,

you forgot where you were.

I think I want to wake up now.

Strange custom.

Doesn't give me pleasure.

And I went in and basically just started talking in

a weird kind of helium voice and sat on my head

and just started off just playing,

and then I just -- because I went,

"What have you got to lose?"

All right, let me get this straight.

If I win, you don't take the specimen here.

You read me, creature.

Creature?

You want to rumble?

Rumble! ♪ Da da da da da♪

[Laughter]

And they went, "Yes!" And I went, "Serious?"

And so I got the gig.

I had one job and one job only --

to keep a straight face.

[Screeching]

Aaaah!

We must introduce the local celebrity.

[Orkan]

[Laughter]

Can we get on with this now?

Whatever you said, he absorbed it,

it washed around in his Williamsness,

and shot back at you.

I just come in just trying anything.

I went, "Can I try this one?"

"What's to lose?" "Hey."

So it's me just playing off of them

and it turned out to be very popular.

I mean, it was kind of weird because people were going,

"What's this in the middle of Happy Days?"

It did very well.

NARRATOR: It did so well, ABC fast-tracked a new series

for Williams' alien character called Mork & Mindy.

And I start watching Robin, and all of a sudden,

I realized that I am like the luckiest girl in the world,

laughing out loud all by myself in my agent's office.

And then, you know, I said to my agent,

"Sign me up. This guy is brilliant."

So, you're from outer space.

Yes. You mind if I take a few pictures

for the folks on the home planet?

They'd like to get some postcards.

[Laughter]

No.

Okay, watch the blookie.

[Laughter]

DAWBER: When I met him

and I said, "Hey, Mork," I said, "I'm Mindy."

And he goes, he goes, "Oh, it's very --

very nice to meet you.

I'm very excited to be working with you."

And I said, "Oh. Me too."

And I went back.

I said, "Is he -- is he Russian?"

She goes, "He's not Russian.

He's nuts!"

The wonderful news is she's really sweet

and really funny in her own right,

and I could just go off the wall and do strange things,

and because I'm an alien, it's okay.

-How do I look? -You look real nice,

except don't forget to hold in your stomach.

Ooh! Well, you dressed up for me.

Oh, I've got a big interview today.

-How do I look? -Oh, real nice,

but don't forget to hold in your thighs.

[Laughter]

For me, it was almost an acting class,

because I've never done improvisation,

so I'm like, "Oh, my god, he didn't give me a line,

he didn't give me a line.

I've got to get us out the door."

And so I started thinking on my feet.

NARRATOR: Before the first episode aired,

the press was dubious.

Alien shows didn't have a stellar track record.

But once America saw

Mork & Mindy for the first time,

Robin Williams became an sensation.

It's still in people's consciousness

from that time, and people, "Diddy-diddy."

"You mean 'nanu-nanu.'" "Yeah, that's it."

But it's the thing of -- you know, it just kind of --

it struck a chord because it was so kind of

out of left field in that way, but it was a blast.

The first year was crazy fun.

It was just so much fun.

Aaaah!

I'm going home, mama!

Waaah!

[Applause]

Hey! Don't take away my gusto!

[Laughter]

Ah, help me, I'm melting!

[Laughter]

The first year, basically -- they're basically just

taking things from my standup act and putting it in.

It was basically me learning about humans

and at the end having the thing of talking to Orson every week.

Mork calling Orson, come in, Orson.

ORSON: This is Orson. What's the matter with you?

Me? Nothing.

ORSON: You've got a strange look on your face.

Maybe it's love.

It was just me playing, having a good time,

and having Pam standing there and kind of holding the middle

of explaining things and being patient,

and occasionally we'd have a kind of warm and fuzzy moment

of like, "Oh, that's love.

Oh, cool, wonderful.

Nice to know that, Mindy."

Mindy,

I'd like to kiss my pal.

All right.

Whoa!

Those little moments just worked.

I don't know, he just, um...

I don't know, it was just a certain magic time

and we were in it together.

Rapid heart beat.

Temperature rising.

I get it.

What did you get?

I think I know what made those car windows

steam up at the drive-in.

People remember the silliest stuff.

You know, "What's your favorite planet?"

"Pluto." "Why?"

"Because it's a Mickey Mouse planet."

It's like, "Why does that joke work?"

And just people would remember the thing about,

"Fly, be free," where I'd take eggs

and throw them up and they'd crash.

It's against intergalactic law to eat fellow space travelers.

Fly, be free!

[Laughter]

Well, I guess we'll have to have a quick burial at sea, then.

[Laughter]

I'll notify your next of kin!

[Laughter]

Your brother bit the big one.

[Laughter]

NARRATOR: Williams' jokes came so fast,

it was a challenge to keep up with him,

especially for the network censors.

We would try different things and it was just kind of

to see what could get under the radar.

No, Mork, you don't understand.

I was expecting a special letter.

Oh, let me give you one.

How about K?

Maybe an F, or a U!

Standards and Practice people were like, "No, nope, nope.

You're not saying that."

Eventually they had to have a censor who spoke --

I think spoke Spanish, three or four

different languages, because I was sneaking things in

in different languages and they went,

"She knows what that means."

"Really? How sad."

Because I was using -- sometimes Mork

would speak Yiddish.

"[Yiddish], Mindy."

NARRATOR: Mork & Mindy was performed in front of

a studio audience, a longstanding technique

that especially benefits comedians like Williams,

who need the feedback of an audience reaction.

Once that audience was in, it was a whole --

He was just like, "Bing!"

He was just, go on -- you know, he's on the set,

he's climbing through the audience,

he's playing with the band, he was -- you know,

I mean, it was insane, but it was so much fun.

People forget that Chaplin,

when he did a lot of his movies,

was performing in front of people,

that they sometimes would have --

a lot of the silent comedians would have like --

because there was no soundtrack,

they'd have an audience so they know where the laughs were.

Or he would take it out as stage productions.

Like the Marx Brothers did all of their movies

as stage productions first

so they knew where all the laughs were.

Sometimes we'd have to film a show without the audience

and he didn't like it, and he felt flat.

NARRATOR: On Thursday nights, Mork & Mindy jumped to

the top of the ratings, but then network executives

began to tinker with the winning formula.

I remember this one network executive said,

"You're the funniest man I've seen since Jack Carter."

I went, "Thank you, somewhat."

It was just like -- that was just a bizarre thing.

And as the show went on, you know, we had --

you know, the first year was good,

second year was good, and then the network

started to -- they got kind of greedy.

We're very unhappy with the ridiculous, the bad --

what they did to that show.

They put us on different nights,

and then in order to jack up the ratings,

they decided to -- literally one of the episodes

was myself, Raquel Welch, and two Playboy bunnies,

former Playboy centerfolds, I think.

I am Captain Nirvana of the Necroton Black Army.

Kama, Sutra.

Fall in.

Orkan, you have exactly five seconds

to get your meaningless life together in one bucket.

Mindy, those are Necrotons.

They're as mean as they are ugly.

There were a lot of little kids

who went through puberty watching that episode.

I think that -- that really changed the --

and we lost a lot of the audience.

And then I was dressed as a Denver Bronco cheerleader,

and at that point it was just, you know, okay,

we're starting to go away from the innocent Mork

into like this bizarre transvestite comedy.

CROWD: Hey, Mork! Hey, Mork!

Woo!

NARRATOR: For the fourth season of Mork & Mindy,

the producers decided to add a new character,

played by the only comedian who could match Robin Williams'

spontaneous comic energy -- Jonathan Winters.

You don't have to leave, sir.

You can't leave the bitter memories in your mind.

Why not leave with something sweet?

Like, I have this delicious dessert I made,

and you have to try it, please.

[Laughter]

You know, incidentally, you seem like

the only normal one here.

[Laughter]

NARRATOR: In many ways, Jonathan Winters

had paved the way for Robin Williams

as television's first improvisational genius.

It's sort of man against the jungle, you might say.

You know, malaria, yellow fever.

Animals. No offense, Rodney.

You see, I'll be shoving off before long --

Look, you're into me for 200 now.

Keep your hands out of there.

WILLIAMS: He made it possible for me

to think that you can do anything.

He made it possible to do voices, characters,

sound effects, and all those different things

that just opened the world up.

He was morphing before the technology.

So that was for me like the beginning of like, "Wow."

Tell me, Mr. Groundhog,

do you predict six miserable,

lousy weeks of weather ahead of us or not?

I don't know anything about the weather, Jack.

I can tell you that it's just a crummy hole

I live in down there.

It's rotten, it's damp, the missus is about

the ugliest broad I have ever seen.

I'll leave you alone.

WINTERS: Now, Robin Williams said to me one time,

"Pops, you're my mentor."

And I said, "No, don't -- listen.

Don't say 'mentor.'

In Ohio they think that's a salve.

Say 'idol.' Everybody gets that.

I love 'idol.'"

I remember seeing him, watching him with my father,

and my dad was kind of, you know, very kind of

quiet like this, and Jonathan did a thing

where he came on one time on The Tonight Show

with Jack Paar and he came out and said --

and Jack said, "What are you?"

What are you?

I'm the Voice of Spring.

[Laughter]

I bring you some little goodies from the forest.

[Laughter]

[Whistling]

[Laughter]

And I saw my Dad lose it and I went, "Okay, this guy.

I like this guy."

Wheee!

It took me 45 minutes to get that in there.

Oh, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.

In the forest, we don't care.

[Laughter]

When we had Jonathan on, it was amazing,

because he and I -- they would just do these things,

like, "Jonathan and Robin riff here."

I was kicked out of Santa, sir. They found me in a dress.

Doesn't make any difference. They found you in what?

A gown.

A gown's better.

WILLIAMS: One time we did a World War I takeoff.

They shot for like 45 minutes, to the point where

the cameras were running out of film.

They were like machine gunners at Guadalcanal.

"I'm out!

Get a gunner to Camera 3!"

And were just riffing.

They're coming, father, look!

Thousands of Huns, Germans, Bosch!

Germans and Bosch! What's the Bosch?

-Small soup with beets. -I suppose.

And then eventually they would cut it down to five minutes.

Once Jonathan Winters came on, that was chaos.

I have to say, that was tough,

and some of the shows didn't make any sense

because the two of them -- you know, Robin was like,

"Yeah!" Everything was a free-for-all.

[Imitating gunfire]

Ow, ow, my hand, my hand!

I'm sorry, sorry, take it out!

I'm hurt, I'm hurt!

I know you are, but you've killed

the old man with four fingers in his head!

[Laughter]

Well, it's two crazy guys, you know,

that had just been released from a major hospital,

and, "Ha, ha, ha, we're on the playground now,

you'll never get us.

We can get in that Jeep and roll away, bye-bye."

And he is on full throttle.

Robin could go off, do some brilliant

improvisational thing, and come back.

Jonathan would go off and you'd never see him again.

Looks like the bloody war's over.

-No, sir. -What a shame.

And no action.

You know, I can't -- no, it's my medallions.

[Laughter]

There we are.

And the people say, "Did you get pictures of Robin?"

No.

They got blurred.

He got out, "Did you get a picture?"

"No, I almost got the camera out."

This is a tough guy to catch, tough guy to catch.

I love the guy.

WILLIAMS: It's amazing stuff that Jonathan would just go off,

"I don't know anymore, no, no," and he'd play

this petulant little kid like,

"No, I won't do that anymore, Dad,"

and then he'd see a beautiful woman and going,

"But her I understand." "Easy."

NARRATOR: As Mork & Mindy's ratings declined

in the fourth season, Robin Williams' need

for affirmation increased.

After a full day on the set,

it's wasn't unusual for him to perform at comedy clubs

until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning.

With comedians, the time they're the most alive

is when they're onstage, and then the other time

I think is really hard for them.

He was running.

I mean, Robin's life -- Robin just ran.

Ran, ran, ran, ran, ran as fast as he could

from one gig to another, to people's apartments,

to the Comedy Store and back.

As fame starts to diminish, it starts to become --

you become less famous or not as hot.

That's also another part of it, like,

"Well, what do you mean," you know?

NARRATOR: By the fourth year of Mork & Mindy,

it was clear the series had run its course

and would be cancelled.

That's the part of -- that -- that's the other part

of the drill, of like, "Uh-oh, it's going away."

And then you get kind of like, "All right,

I remember you used to do this --

there's lots more people here."

But yeah, that's -- that was part of that time, I think.

You know, it was so huge so quickly

and then it kind of started to -- you know,

by the fourth year, it was like,

"No, not so much, though."

Robin would come to my house.

This was after Mork & Mindy was canceled.

All of a sudden, the buzzer would ring.

"Dawber, it's Robin."

"Oh. Okay."

He would -- he wanted to communicate with me,

but he didn't know how.

He'd go from the couch to the TV to the phone

to the refrigerator to the ba, the da.

In 15 minutes, he's gone.

And if you'd try to talk to him about stuff,

he was uncomfortable.

NARRATOR: As Mork & Mindy was coming to a close,

Williams was jolted by two major life-changing experiences.

His first child was born

and his close friend John Belushi

died from a drug overdose.

Williams was with Belushi just hours before

Belushi passed away.

A guy who could do anything, gone.

You think you're tough? No.

Puss compared to him.

And that -- I mean, it got me going -- two things.

It got my ass clean at that point,

him going and my first son being born.

I didn't want to be like, "Hey, here's a little switch.

Daddy's going to throw up on you," you know?

You know, you don't need drugs when you have a kid.

You're awake, you're paranoid.

NARRATOR: Williams quit the drug and alcohol lifestyle,

and his career seemed on a major uptick

as he landed coveted movie roles like Popeye.

RODRIGUEZ: The critics were vicious to him

in Popeye, but, hey, if you could find

a better Popeye, I don't know what it is.

NARRATOR: Popeye bombed at the box office

and Williams feared his acting career was over.

Desperate for a creative outlet, he returned to standup.

But you must be careful,

especially when smoking a little marijuana.

Yes, yes.

Yes, the police, the police have a new test.

What they do is they pull you over,

they get out of their car, walk toward you like this.

[Slowly] "Will you get out of the car?"

[Laughter]

And you're trying to be cool, you're trying to maintain,

going, "[Desperate laughter]."

"Get in the damn car!" "[Desperate laughter]".

Standup's hard.

I mean, going on the road is the toughest gig of all.

But is it rewarding? Yeah.

But is it hard work? Oh, yes.

And as you get older,

it's like it's harder work, you know?

I had heart surgery halfway through the last tour.

You know, "Almost killed you, You're back!

Hee hee, way to go!"

And they started offering me choices

about what type of valves I can get,

and here were some of my choices.

Number one, a porcine valve, which is a pig valve,

which is kind of cool because you're already

inoculated with swine flu, number one.

[Laughter]

And one of the side effects says you can find truffles,

which is kind of cool.

You have things sitting in the back of your mind,

you're thinking, "Well, yeah, there's ideas of --

Yeah, this might work.

Maybe, yeah, mmm..."

And then you'll -- and here's the coefficient

that makes it all work is the audience.

You know, you haven't -- you can think about

these things alone, and a lot of times you are,

and then you take it out in front of people

and they go, this works or this doesn't work,

and it's a combination of, okay, this might be

the wrong audience for this routine,

or this is the perfect group to do it for.

And it's just that -- you know, it is that -- you know,

if it's that moment and it's right,

it's pretty amazing.

NARRATOR: His very first standup special on HBO

was a major hit, giving Robin Williams new hope.

Well, why wouldn't Robin come back to standup?

He had to come back to standup.

When you're the world's greatest standup,

you come back to standup.

That's the thing that kept my sanity alive

in the face of Mork & Mindy disappearing,

Popeye not doing so well, and then just going,

"Okay, that's the thing that I still can do

that I actually literally earn money

and also keep -- you know, keep my chops alive."

My god, Nanook of Norinne.

My god!

This is a lovely -- look at this thing.

Right now there's a whole bunch of animals going,

"[Bleep], is it cold? Jesus!"

[Laughter]

Woo!

JIMMIE WALKER: Robin Williams,

people say, "We like you so much,

we're going to take a day and a half's pay

and pay our money to see you."

That's when you're a star.

That's when you're rolling.

Oh, I guess you couldn't afford the bottom fur.

[Laughter]

And I feel like Liberace right now,

going, "Just leave me the candelabra, damn you,

leave me the candelabra." This is wonderful.

Robin's wearing the lovely pants from Hefty Bag.

[Laughter]

♪ La di di da♪

NARRATOR: Despite the success of his HBO special,

Robin Williams didn't see standup as his destiny.

He wanted to act, and not just in comic roles.

Landing the lead in The World According to Garp

gave him that opportunity,

and on the very first day, director George Roy Hill

helped Williams begin the transition.

The first day I was working on Garp,

I started improvising, and he went,

"Just say the lines and commit to that and go with that."

Do you think I might be a real writer?

I do.

Oh, I do!

Oh, ha ha.

Oh.

And you said you'd only marry a real writer.

I did.

And I do.

I do, too.

NARRATOR: The World According to Garp

opened doors for Robin Williams,

demonstrating his ability to play a wide emotional range,

which he built on in Moscow on the Hudson.

Tell me, Lev.

When you speak English, does your mouth hurt?

My mouth is fine. My brain's what hurts.

Oh. When I speak English, my lips,

my tongue hurt.

One time he came over to me and said...

[Russian]

Which means, "You make me feel like a natural woman."

Made my day, I'll tell you that.

NARRATOR: In 1987, Williams felt safe returning to

his comedy roots, playing a fast-talking funnyman

in Good Morning Vietnam, a role that would earn Williams

his first Academy Award nomination.

Goooood morning, Vietnam!

Hey, this is not a test.

This is rock 'n' roll!

NARRATOR: For these radio station scenes,

Williams ad-libbed hours of material.

Director Barry Levinson had the difficult job

of picking the best bits.

What is a demilitarized zone?

Sounds like something out of Wizard of Oz.

"Oh, no, don't go in there."

♪ Oh-we-oh, Hoh Chi Minh♪

"Look, you've landed in Saigon.

You're among the little people now."

♪ We represent the ARVN Army, the ARVN Army♪

"Oh, hello. Follow the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Follow the Ho Chi Minh Trail."

We'd done like about 18 hours of radio stuff,

and I said to Barry Levinson, I said,

"Do you think we have enough?" He went, "I think so, yeah."

Because I was worried -- "Do we have to do more?"

You have to slow the footage down to see that

it's at dolphin chatter speed.

It's data full.

It's just playing at the speed of light.

And he's switching characters and becoming ten,

15 people in each bit.

"What's the weather like out there?"

"It's hot. Damn hot, real hot.

Hottest things is my shorts.

I can cook things in it.

Little crotch pot cooking."

"Well, can you tell me what it feels like?"

"Fool, it's hot! I told you again!

Were you born on the sun? It's damn hot."

I did a character for dinner one night,

a dinner with him that was kind of an Asian --

a gay Asian fashion consultant.

"First of all, before you go to combat,

you want to have colors that don't clash."

So he said, "Put that on -- do that on the radio."

I went, "Okay."

"You know, this whole camouflage thing for me

doesn't work very well."

"Why is that?"

"Because you go in the jungle, I can't see you!

You know, it's like wearing stripes and plaid.

For me, I want you to do something different.

You know, you go in the jungle, make a statement.

If you're going to fight, clash!"

And a lot of the stuff was just based on,

you know, characters around

or just things that -- he said, "Try that guy."

It's almost like you would see him,

"Scanning, scanning, scanning," and then he'd see it

and then he'd start to enjoy it himself

and it was going to be good.

You could really see that in Good Morning, Vietnam.

NARRATOR: In Awakenings, director Penny Marshall

helped Robin Williams through his most challenging role yet --

playing opposite Robert De Niro.

PENNY MARSHALL: And so I had De Niro.

Now I had to get someone to counter that energy of Bobby's.

NARRATOR: Penny Marshall persuaded Williams

to take the role, but he was worried

Robert De Niro would overshadow his character.

Robin was afraid Bobby would -- I said, "That's my job,

is to make it so you're both equal."

And he trusted me and Bob trusted me.

It's late.

Everyone's asleep.

Oh.

I'm not asleep.

No --

You're awake.

I'd go like that to him.

That was my symbol to Robin.

To Robin, yeah.

More... balls.

Stronger. Yeah.

What does that mean?

Yeah, thank you. More balls.

Mas cojones.

Thank you.

I guess because it was the idea because sometimes it could be

so kind of intellectual when you're playing a character.

At one point, Bob De Niro was so

intensely into the experience of being suffering

from encephalitis lethargica that Oliver wanted to

hook him up to an EEG to see if he duplicated the brain waves.

That's beyond method acting.

I mean, at that point you're going,

"Come back, come back."

L.

[Clack]

Leonard.

L.

NARRATOR: To the surprise of many,

Robin Williams did not receive an Academy Award nomination

for Awakenings.

Robin was -- got gypped because

he didn't get nominated or anything.

I did have a non-nominees party, because me, Robin -- you know,

the movie, Bobby, the writers, everyone got nominated.

But not us, so we had a non-nominees party.

NARRATOR: Robin Williams' dry spell didn't last long.

In the next few years,

he was nominated for both The Fisher King

and Dead Poets Society.

Why do I stand up here?

-Anybody. -To feel taller.

No.

Thank you for playing, Mr. Dalton.

I stand upon my desk

to remind myself that we must constantly

look at things in a different way.

He was brilliant.

That's him! That's Robin.

That's the Robin I knew.

O Captain, my Captain.

Sit down, Mr. Anderson.

Do you hear me?

Sit down.

Sit down!

This is your final warning, Anderson.

How dare you?

Do you hear me?

KNOX: O Captain, my Captain.

Mr. Overstreet, I warned you.

Sit down.

Sit down!

Sit down, all of you!

I want you seated.

Sit down.

Leave, Mr. Keating.

I wrote him a love letter after I saw Dead Poets Society,

because he was so real and he was so who he is, was.

NARRATOR: Despite his success in dramatic films,

Robin Williams also continued in comic roles,

including a turn as a woman in Mrs. Doubtfire.

Hello.

Mrs. Hillard, I presume?

MIRANDA: Yes, I'm Miranda Hillard.

Euphegenia Doubtfire.

Yes. Won't you please come in?

Thank you, dear.

Using the kind of the mask skills

in Mrs. Doubtfire of, you know,

it's kind of like interior puppeteering.

Both personalities

were in the other room talking to this other person.

"Mrs. Sellner here to see you."

"Oh, is she here?"

"Yes, dear, she is."

"Oh, Mrs. Sellner!

I just got out of the shower.

I think you'll be fairly pleased with me.

I've been through some really interesting changes."

And I thought, "Oh, my god, that is like flawless.

He's zooming back and forth seamlessly.

I don't know if I could do that."

He's just changing, dear.

"Yes, I want to keep you abreast

of some of the changes in my career."

Splendid, wonderful, magnificent.

NARRATOR: In Aladdin, Robin Williams

broke new ground again, becoming the first major star

to voice an animated character.

Whooooa, whoa,

does it feel good to be out of there!

I tell you, nice to be back, ladies and gentlemen.

Hi, where are you from? What's your name?

Uh, uh, Aladdin.

Aladdin! Hello, Aladdin, nice to have you on the show.

can we call you Al? Or maybe just Din?

Or how about Laddie?

Sounds like, "Here, boy. Come on, Laddie!"

Cone on, kid, see?

NARRATOR: Nearly all Williams' lines were ad-libbed.

The producers wisely let him say whatever he liked.

Yo, rug man, haven't seen you

in a few millennia.

Give me some tassel.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Say. You're a lot smaller than my last master.

Either that or I'm getting bigger.

Look at me from the side. Do I look different to you?

Wait, wait a minute.

NARRATOR: In 1998,

Robin Williams finally won an Academy Award,

for his role in Good Will Hunting.

You don't know about real loss,

because that only occurs when you love something

more than you love yourself.

And don't you ever dare to love anybody that much.

Williams' director for Good Will Hunting

was Gus Van Sant.

WILLIAMS: The greatest directors are the ones

that are almost like road cones, that they set the idea that

if you bump over it, going, "That's too much."

With Gus Van Sant on Good Will Hunting,

I found myself by the end, he said, "Just -- you know,

just have the conversation, just talk."

So you're not "acting" per se but eventually the things

start to happen, I realized, "How did that go?"

He went, "It was amazing because you're just talking about --

You're talking ostensibly and it becomes more and more intimate."

I look at you,

I don't see an intelligent, confident man.

I see a cocky, scared [bleep]-less kid.

But you're a genius, Will.

No one denies that.

No one could possibly understand the depths of you.

I'd finish a scene going, "Was that okay?

Because I was just talking to him."

He went, "That's wonderful. That's what it should be."

And not to say that sometimes underacting can be

just as dangerous as overacting, you know, where people just go,

[Mumbling]

"What?"

"I'm saying that I love you."

"What?"

"I love you."

"What?"

"I love you." "Oh, cool, you love me."

The linear and impressionistic mix

makes a very muddled composition.

It's also a Winslow Homer ripoff

except you've got whitey rowing about there.

Well, it's art, Monet. It wasn't very good.

That's not really what concerns me, though.

-What concerns you? -Just the coloring.

You know what the real bitch of it is?

It's paint by number.

To listen to someone and to be there listening with intent

and to be there focused and with them,

present with them,

is just as powerful and in some cases

and some characters even more so.

The scariest guy in a bar is the quiet guy.

And the guy -- that's where that line came from

in Good Will Hunting where they said --

oh, you know, when he starts mouthing off about my wife,

and I said, "I will end you."

That's it, isn't it?

You married the wrong woman.

What happened?

What, she leave you?

Was she, you know, banging some other guy?

If you ever disrespect my wife again,

I will end you.

That came from somebody that Matt I think saw in a bar,

this little guy,

and this big guy kept pushing him,

you know, "You little [bleep], I'll kick your ass."

And this guy just -- this little guy

just walked up to him and said, "I will end you."

And the big guy walked away.

Got that, chief?

Time's up.

Yeah.

You were never thinking about Robin Williams the standup.

You were thinking about Robin Williams the man.

NARRATOR: By his early 50s, Robin Williams had found success

in almost every venue --

standup, television, animation, movies --

but he never stopped looking for more challenges.

WILLIAMS: Willing to take chances,

and you've got to in order to keep exploring.

You have to do that in order to push the parameters,

to see -- to see what's out there.

SEYMOUR: Some people think that this is a job for a clerk.

They actually believe that any idiot that

attends a two-day seminar can master the art of making

beautiful prints in less than an hour.

One Hour Photo, which is -- I never had people

more creeped out by a movie in their life.

I had a kid come up to me and go,

"That thing scared the -- out of me, Mr. Wilson."

Get on the bed.

Get on the [bleep] bed!

Look, look, I've got plenty of cash in my pants.

Shut up.

Close the drapes. Close them!

Who told you to do that?

I closed the drapes.

Did I tell you to wrap a towel around yourself?

NARRATOR: By all accounts, Williams' real-life personality

was the opposite of his One Hour Photo character.

He was a caring person with a desire to help others,

a man who went to extraordinary efforts to do the right thing.

He always had time for you, to talk to you,

to catch up on you.

Every comic you talk to

had his own personal relationship with him

in a sense that he knew you, he knew about your kid,

your old lady, how are things going.

He'd ask you those questions, and you'd say, "Really?"

As much as he had and as much as he was willing to give

and as much as he made people happy,

he had to deal with an equal amount that was difficult,

and I think what he did so gallantly

and unfortunately unsuccessfully in the end

is he was able to keep that darkness at bay

as long as he could.

NARRATOR: Starting in 1986,

Robin Williams dedicated himself to Comic Relief,

raising millions for people in need.

There really was a need to kind of address homelessness

and the lack of care, and it was the idea

of literally getting health care.

And now tonight they're here for the reunion

we've all been hoping for.

The masters of merriment, well, amyl nitrate,

My heart's kicking faster.

Those princes of polka,

Yosh and Stan, the Shmenge Brothers!

And the idea of, you know, gathering together

and getting across ostensibly a tough,

tough message but with comedy,

that you could juxtapose amazing comics.

♪ He's so excited♪

-How have you been? -Good.

I'm so really happy.

And we cross.

♪ Ooh ooh ooh, ow!♪

♪ Ooh ooh ooh♪ -Make a wish!

NARRATOR: In his 50s and 60s, Williams fell

back into depression and relapsed into alcoholism,

but he fought back over and over,

got treatment, and rebuilt his life.

He was determined to use his gifts

to make a difference in the world.

You deserve the best. You're incredible.

Thank you so much. Merry Christmas, happy new year.

[Cheering]

NARRATOR: No entertainer made more trips

to war-torn Afghanistan and Iraq than Robin Williams.

But I come here...

for you, because I believe you're amazing.

[Cheering]

NARRATOR: He felt a special kinship to soldiers

who found themselves far from home.

[Bugling]

Uh-oh!

[Cheering]

I'm not gonna forget that.

[Laughter]

I've never had an entire audience just go,

"Forget you!"

[Laughter]

You have no idea!

[Cheering]

I was also wondering what's coming from that way.

When you say, "Who's the heavily-armed Amish guy?"

And they go, "He's Special Forces."

"Oh, cool."

If you could have seen him with those troops over there,

I mean, he -- you could feel his love

and respect and admiration for those young men and women.

He literally had to be dragged away several times

because he was posing for pictures

with whoever wanted a picture.

He did whatever he could for those guys.

He was amazing.

My favorite thing, I did a show once in Kabul

and there's a guy in the front that has a thing that says --

He's wearing a uniform and he's dark-haired

and he's got a thing that says Jose,

so I keep going, "Jose, que paso?"

And he just looks at me like this,

and eventually he's laughing, I do some other stuff,

and afterwards, I asked this guy,

Special Forces guy, "Who's the guy in front, Jose?

'Cause it seems like he didn't have a good time."

He said, "Oh, no, he loves you, man."

I went, "Really? Where's he from?"

He said, "He's an Afghan. He's an assassin.

He works with us."

And I was like, "Cool, I'm glad he likes me."

CLARK: And you can see on their faces

that they're just excited, but him.

He looks excited.

He looks excited to be there.

Just for him to step down and walk into

a bunch of soldiers having a cigarette

and dreaming about home, they'd turn around and they'd,

"Wow!" They'd scream like a 16 year old girl

at an NSYNC concert.

You know, this howl, you know, and it was --

it was -- it made you forget you were in a war, you know?

Robin was just there for that.

I mean, Robin ran to the rescue.

That's the kind of person he was.

[Cheering]

Whoa! Whoa!

What's up?

Hi. All of a sudden, I've got balloons.

[Laughter]

I'm lap dancing. Let's do this.

Gooood evening, Bagram!

The first time in Afghanistan where you're like in --

because it was just after -- it was right after

they went in to Afghanistan where you're performing

in little tiny spaces because it couldn't be outdoors

because you're a target, and there was --

It was pretty wild to be there and just see these faces,

and you'd look out and you'd go, they're the same age as my son.

I wish you from my heart a Merry Christmas,

Happy Hanukah, Happy Kwanzaa, to my brothers.

You know who you are.

And I shall return, as they say.

He wanted to do whatever he could for those guys

no matter what.

I mean, if they'd have said, "Here, take this weapon

and go out here and stand a post,"

he'd have done it!

You come back humbled, you know, in a good way.

NARRATOR: As a boy, Robin Williams

played with toy soldiers all by himself.

Toward the end of his life, he was still

playing with soldiers, but he wasn't alone anymore.

He was beloved by men and women in uniform

and by the whole world.

That little boy in the attic came out of his shell

and brought joy to millions

for 63 years.

WINKLER: That he was willing to say,

"I'm still that little boy."

I think he'll be remembered as a gentle soul

who traveled at the speed of light.

Why?

Why?

Why?

We'll never see his like again.

I think everybody realizes this.

This is once-in-a-lifetime person,

not just the talent but the person that he was.

Don't go.

We need you.

He's missed. He's missed.

It's like somebody chopped your leg off.

You'll never walk the same.

I hope he rests in peace.

If only he understood what happened to the world

when he decided to leave.

The whole world was in mourning.

To learn more about the life and work of Robin Williams

visit pbs.org/robinwilliams

Where you can also access mental health resources in your area

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