Robin Williams merged into the memorable characters he created

Robin Williams in the 1993 film "Mrs. Doubtfire" 20th Century Fox

Robin Williams put his memorable talents to use in so many films, and on television over these years. There was just no one like him. His suicide at the age of 63 saddened us all. Lee Cowan gives us a remembrance:

Had Robin Williams done nothing more than "Mork & Mindy," chances are we'd still be talking about him.

"Nanu, nanu" and "shazbot" became part of the cultural landscape just like the rainbow suspenders his character always wore.

Thankfully for us, no one tried to rein him in, as he explained to the late Ed Bradly, on 60 Minutes early on in his career.

"They'd write a loosely based story that would allow a lot of room to play. Because that's what people watched for, they watched for the play, the interaction. And it was nice, it was wonderful. It was great freedom. My God, normally television is so restrictive," said Williams. "We pushed it out as far as we could."

Of course there was a lot more than just "Mork & Mindy."

To watch Williams ply his craft at the Improv in Los Angeles, or anywhere in fact, was to experience comic chaos. It was like he was sitting on a geyser of humor that simply never ran dry.

"For me, it's therapy. It's another world for me. Because I was trained as an actor and I started doing comedy because I couldn't find any work in plays," said Williams.

Budd Friedman started the Improv comedy club and would let Williams go on stage even when he didn't have a routine. He remembered Williams' first night there.

"He had a mind that just wouldn't stop. And he was fast as anyone has ever been," said Friedman.

181602475-1.jpg
Robin Williams speaks onstage during the 65th Annual Primetime Emmy Award in L.A. Sept.22, 2013
Getty/Kevin Winter

Fellow comedians like Lewis Black would st and back, laugh and marvel.

"The instantaneousness [sic] of his mind, the fact that it would all happen in an instant - if you wrote it down, you can't do it," said Black.

Black said you are lucky to just have the opportunity to be in the presence of Williams' brilliance.

"And the fact that he was willing to share that with me, it was very important, and in his passing I realize how important that was," Lewis said emotionally.

Where it all came from seemed a mystery, even to Robin Williams himself.

It started early as an only child growing up in Detroit.

"My father gave me this tiny, Japanese tape recorder and I used to do these radio shows where I'd interview myself. You do different characters: 'Now, what do you feel about that? Well...' I did that. That was, just shortly after the nervous breakdown. I was about 10 or 11 years old," said Williams.

Williams studied at Juilliard in New York, where drama director John Houseman said that Williams gave the greatest audition he had ever seen.

And-he continued to surprise.

robin-williams-dead-poets-society.jpg
Robin Williams in "Dead poets society"
Touchstone Pictures

Whether as the cross-dressing nanny in "Mrs. Doubtfire," or as the gay father in "The Birdcage," Williams disappeared into the characters he created.

In "Dead Poets Society," he embodied the teacher we all wish we had.

In "The Fisher King," he played the academic who lost everything opposite actor Jeff Bridges.

"Remembering the last scene of me and Robin out there at four o'clock in the morning - naked - and Robin is just wild and free," laughed Bridges.

Comedy or drama, it didn't matter. He found a home in both, bringing a smile even to Oscar for his performance in "Good Will Hunting."

"When you get to perform as an actor, you get to explore behavior, and totally different beings than yourself which is wonderful," said Williams.

But the humanity in his performances, that sense decency he displayed in films like "Patch Adams," was by almost every account no act.

"The generosity of his spirit was as boundless as his talent and you'll hear it a thousand times and it's true that you don't see people as generous as Robin was," said Black.

Actress, author and activist Marlo Thomas said Williams never said "no."

""Robin never said no. He never made it difficult. A lot of the other stars we had to chase. We never had to chase Robin," said Thomas.

Williams raised millions for various charities, especially those involving sick children, like the St. Jude Research Hospital founded by Danny Thomas, Marlo Thomas's father.

"My dad used to say there are two types of people in this world: the givers and the takers. The takers sometimes eat better, but the givers always sleep better. I believe Robin is sleeping very well, very peacefully," said Thomas.

With the nonprofit Comic Relief, he tackled homelessness.

With Broadway Cares, he helped raise money to fight AIDS.

But it was his passion for American troops that took his talent farthest from home as a USO regular in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

"They're the best audience in the world. You don't get any better ones," said Williams.

robinwilliams.jpg
Robin Williams entertains troops in Baghdad, Iraq. Dec. 16, 2003
Getty Images/Chris Hondros

He never hid the fact that despite his sense of humor, the demons of depression, anxiety and addiction were never far behind.

"If they made a drug that allowed you to drink and not get drunk, an alcoholic would go, 'What happens you take took two?'," Williams said in his stand-up show "Weapons of Self Destruction."

His troubles were constant companions on stage, and off.

"You see, as an alcoholic, you will violate your standards quicker than you could lower them. You will do [expletive] even the devil would go, 'Dude!'"

But just three years ago, Williams talked about how life seemed to be getting better with age.

"I just look back and go, 'Hey, just enjoy it, you know.' There's no rush," Robin said. "It's all gratitude. Gratitude for days. It's like, 'Wow, this is a great life'," said Williams.

His wife released a statement Thursday that said Williams' sobriety was intact, but revealed that he was suffering from the early stages of Parkinson's disease.

Several projects including the latest installment of the "Night at the Museum" movies have yet to be released, so he's not done making us laugh, not yet.

Williams has been described as a "man-child." That's fitting perhaps. Because he played just such a role in the film "Jack," where as a rapidly aging boy, his end - prophetically - came far too fast.

In the film, his character gives a speech at his high school graduation:

"When a shooting star streaks through the blackness, turning night into day, make a wish and think of me. Make your life spectacular. I know I did."

For more info:

Comments

Follow Us

Watch CBSN Live

Watch CBS News anytime, anywhere with the new 24/7 digital news network. Stream CBSN live or on demand for FREE on your TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone.

On Twitter