Robin Williams a comic force, versatile actor

Aug 12 2014, 22:11 IST
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SummaryRobin Williams was impersonating physicist Stephen Hawking getting a lap dance at a strip club.

The question from a fan in a Sirius XM interview last year was innocent - what do you think you'd be doing if you didn't become a comedian? - and within seconds Robin Williams was impersonating physicist Stephen Hawking getting a lap dance at a strip club.

''Now don't sit on the keyboard!'' Williams said, coaxing laughs from a few dozen people in a Manhattan studio.

How did he get there? Explaining it would take twice as long as it took to actually happen. Would anyone else in the world have made such a leap?

Not a chance. Williams, who died in an apparent suicide Monday, was a comic force of nature. The world got to know him as the wild alien in ''Mork & Mindy,'' a comedian who elevated improvisation to an art form and also demonstrated a rare versatility in more serious roles. He moved seamlessly from comedy to drama to tragedy to comedy again during a Hollywood heyday in the 1980s and 1990s. His Academy Award as a supporting actor in ''Good Will Hunting'' came in a drama.

In 1997, Entertainment Weekly magazine named Williams the funniest man alive, and the very next year listed him as one of the world's 25 best actors - a double distinction that made him rare, if not unique.

He touched every generation and demographic, making his entrance in a 1970s comic generation with Steve Martin, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Billy Crystal. He exploded onto the scene at a time when two schools of comedy dominated - ''Saturday Night Live'' and Johnny Carson - and Williams felt equally comfortable running with both crowds.

Williams was the voice of a genie in ''Aladdin'' and a hyper disc jockey in ''Good Morning Vietnam.'' In ''Mrs. Doubtfire,'' he played a dad who dressed as a woman to see his kids, and in ''Birdcage,'' he played a gay man. He was an English teacher in ''Dead Poets Society,'' a scientist in ''Awakenings'' and a prisoner of war in ''Jakob the Liar.'' In this year's independent film, ''The Angriest Man in Brooklyn,'' Williams played a man mistakenly told he had 90 minutes to live.

On a stage, in front of the lights, is where Williams shined most brightly. The riffs, tangents and impersonations came rushing at the audience, a seemingly endless torrent. It looked like onstage cocaine, a drug he abused in real life and,

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