IT was nearly midnight in an upscale Atlanta hotel room, and Robin Williams was decompressing after a show at the nearby Fox Theater. Reclining in his dimly lighted suite, he was weary but in good spirits; the mechanical key hidden in his back was winding down, and the flow of free associations and zany voices that relentlessly emanates from him was slowing to a trickle.
Mr. Williams, 58, had been picking apart the 90-minute stand-up set he had finished, but his thoughts drifted back to a subsequent meet-and-greet with V.I.P. audience members. There, among the fans who had paid extra to shake his hand, get his autograph and tell him they were glad to see he was still alive, one woman had said his comedy had helped her beat cancer.
Asked why he still commanded such devotion from his audience after a three-year period in which he has contended with alcohol dependency, divorce and heart surgery, Mr. Williams sat up and let loose a loud, joyous cackle.
"I know what you're saying," he said. "What's my credibility? Why are they looking to me for advice? Isn't there someone more qualified?"
Amid a spate of suffering that could fill a second Book of Job, Mr. Williams has resumed his first comedy tour since 2002, the one that he had already named "Weapons of Self Destruction" before he halted it to undergo an aortic valve replacement procedure in March. Assuming he makes it through to its conclusion, his itinerary will end with a nine-night stand in New York and Atlantic City, followed by the premiere of an HBO special on Dec. 6.
Needless to say, the Robin Williams who will take the stage on Monday at Town Hall in Manhattan is not the same man who hit the road in September 2008, and not only because he now has a bovine valve in his heart. He has become more introspective and more grateful for what he has. ("You appreciate little things," he said, "like walks on the beach with a defibrillator.")
Only now that the hyper-verbal Mr. Williams finds himself in a confessional mood, he isn't sure he knows when to stop. "How much more can you give?" he asked rhetorically. "Other than, literally, open-heart surgery onstage? Not much. But the only cure you have right now is the honesty of going, this is who you are. I know who I am."
In a career that spans more than 30 years, Mr. Williams has earned a reputation as the manic motormouth of numerous stand-up shows and films like "Good Morning, Vietnam" and "Aladdin." The frenetic brute force of his performance can be awe inspiring, even as it has kept his audience at arm's length.
"I've always felt that Robin's blinding speed and flash of wit was an effort at concealment, rather than revealing," said Eric Idle, a longtime friend. "He would be talking about something personal or sexual, but it was always in general, not about him."
Seated on a private plane headed for Jacksonville, Fla., the morning after his Atlanta show, the compact, famously hirsute Mr. Williams came across as quiet and mild mannered. He spoke softly but enthusiastically about favorite video games, Japanese manga and anime, punctuating his speech with the occasional one-liner or stray impression of Liberace or an old Jewish woman.
As talk turned to his personal life, Mr. Willams made it clear he was not ashamed of discussing the subject, whether in private or onstage in front of thousands.
"It would be insane not to talk about it," he said. "'Oh, what happened?' 'Nothing.' It's what's happened, and everyone knows."
The image of Mr. Williams as a genial joke teller--an image cultivated by a string of shticky, sentimental movie roles--came unraveled in 2006 when he checked himself into a rehabilitation center for alcohol abuse. If the development took fans by surprise, his family members say it was the culmination of a months-long cycle of binges and confrontations.
"There were times when many of us were asking questions, saying, "Hey, what the hell is going on?'" said Zak Williams, 26, the comedian's son by his first wife, Valerie Velardi. (Mr. Williams also has a daughter, Zelda, and a son, Cody, from a second marriage to Marsha Garces). Zak did not go into detail on the discussions that led to his father's rehab stint, but said only, "There was an ultimatum attached to it." He added, "I'm pretty confident that if he continued drinking, he would not be alive today."
Mr. Williams, who kicked a cocaine habit around the time that Zak was born, said he had not fully addressed the issues underlying that addiction. "There was still, in the background, this voice, like, 'Psst,' " he said, beckoning with his finger. "So when I relapsed, I went back hard. The one thing I hadn't dealt with was, how honest do you want to live?"
The "Self Destruction" shows that Mr. Williams began last year, against the backdrop of his second wife's divorcing him, were intended as a platform to answer that question (and, he said, to make money when he wasn't happy with the film roles he was offered). But in February and March he began experiencing breathing problems, accompanied by a nagging cough. Between performances in Florida, Mr. Williams was first told by a doctor that he had a respiratory ailment; then an angiogram revealed, he said, "this valve that was, like, pffffft. It was just blown." On March 13 he underwent surgery at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, then settled in for weeks of recuperation at home in Napa, Calif.
Mr. Williams said he might have felt "a bit of fear" that his broken valve or the operation itself might kill him. Friends who saw him during this time believed his heart condition was more severe.
"You wait a day or two, and you come across that really stressful moment, either physically or emotionally, and it's over," said his friend Lance Armstrong, who had been biking with Mr. Williams days before his angiogram. "You literally fall down, and if you're not around someone who can help, you're done. That is a very profound thing to think about, and it changes you."
As he recovered, Mr. Williams said, he started noticing he was much more sensitive to his surroundings and desirous of human contact.
"I think, literally, because you have cracked the chest, you are vulnerable, totally, for the first time since birth," Mr. Williams said. "It's like, oh, don't get weepy now. My children! My babies!"
When Mr. Williams restarted his tour in September, his act had fundamentally changed. Were there still jokes about local weather patterns, hurricanes and earthquakes, and easy jabs at Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney? Sure. Were there still gleefully vulgar set pieces about slow-motion pornography and a bottomless grab bag of Southern, black, gay, Hispanic and Scottish voices? Of course.
But to this mix Mr. Williams has introduced a strain of more personal humor, about his propensity for divorce, his heart surgery and especially his alcohol rehabilitation. There are bits about his trying to choose which kind of animal valve he should have implanted in his heart; about his post-surgery experiences with Viagra; and about his self-pitying mind-set at the height of his alcoholism ("Poor me, poor me--pour me another drink"). Even the slogan on the cover of the souvenir program sold at his concerts reads, "An alcoholic is someone who can violate his standards faster than he can lower them."
The point of all this recrimination, Mr. Williams said, is not to glamorize his substance abuse. "I can't talk about it any other way than going, 'Just don't,'" he said, in a booming, God-like voice. "There's nothing romantic about it. This idea that as an artist you have to push yourself and explore the dark side? I went there. You can do a lot more interesting stuff when you're not" messed up.
In particular, Mr. Williams seemed pleased with a portion of his act--one that hinges on multiple definitions of a popular swear word--when he recalls his bottoming out as an alcoholic, telling everyone in his life to, in effect, get lost, only to realize that he is utterly alone. When he performed this scene in Atlanta, the crowd did not laugh at all, and instead fell silent.
This was, evidently, the reaction that Mr. Williams was striving for. "I went, that's the moment," he said.
It's not that Mr. Williams has avoided discussing his private life onstage--recall his early routines about cocaine use or young Zak's imitations of his obscene vocabulary. Friends say that you need not scratch too deeply beneath Mr. Williams's surface to find his sensitive side. "He's an easy cry, whether he wants people to know that or not," said Billy Crystal, who has known him since the late 1970s.
What has emerged more recently, Mr. Crystal said, is a greater intensity in Mr. Williams's personal relationships and a new sense of urgency in his live comedy.
"Over the last couple of years and the pain that he's gone through, his brain is the one thing that's kept him buoyant," Mr. Crystal said. "I think he needs the stand-up in a different way than he did before. It's still a safe place for him to be, but he can talk about things and make himself feel better, not just everybody else."
The risk, however, is that this unleashed candor could seem excessively needy. "There's a deep-seated insecurity involved that's inherent with acting and being a comic," Zak Williams said. Part of his father's "mad genius," he said, is that in discussing uncomfortable topics, he achieves a "state of innocence in his material."
"He opens himself up to people in such a way that it can be disarming," he added.
It is a balance that Mr. Williams acknowledges he has not lately struck in his film career, an arena where his Academy Award for "Good Will Hunting" has been eclipsed by mawkish fare he now tweaks in his act. ("You have to make fun of 'Fathers' Day' or 'Bicentennial Man,' " he said. "'Popeye' I stand by.")
As opposed to the films he says he chose for the wrong reasons, Mr. Williams said he'd like to make more movies like "World's Greatest Dad," a dark comedy written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait. Though the film was not widely seen at its August release, Mr. Williams won praise for his modest performance as a schoolteacher plagued by a beastly son.
Mr. Williams said this project had altered his approach to film work "big time." "It's the idea of going, Relax, you got the gig, what do you want to do now?" he said. (He said little about "Old Dogs," a Disney comedy that opens on Wednesday, in which he plays a divorcé who learns he is the father of 7-year-old twins.)
The entertainment industry still seems to be rooting for Mr. Williams. David Miner, a talent manager and executive producer of "30 Rock" and "Parks and Recreation," compared Mr. Williams to comic performers like Bill Murray and Steve Martin, who have kept their cool (and their credibility) while experimenting with a variety of film roles.
"Robin doesn't quite have that right now," Mr. Miner wrote in an e-mail message, "but it is safe to say that both his talent and his career can be called irrepressible, so don't ever count him out. His 'Lost In Translation' is out there somewhere, and so are his fans, like me."
Despite his newfound zest for honesty, Mr. Williams said he did not consider himself a relentlessly honest person. Compared to his friend and mentor Richard Pryor, whom he called the "most honest person I ever knew in comedy," and who joked about setting fire to himself while freebasing cocaine, Mr. Williams said he could not measure up.
"He was brutal that way," Mr. Williams said. "A lot of times he was that open because, I think, he was still drinking. Sometimes you can be that honest, but can you take the consequences of it?" Mr. Williams said he still lacked the courage to "talk about it full-out." "In a room full of alcoholics I can," he said.
While he mends fences with his family Mr. Williams continues to attend 12-step meetings. Zak Williams said his father had also benefited from "a huge community of sober and active people"--namely, fellow comedians, who, he said, "are disproportionately more prone to using substances and then recovering."
For a few more nights this year, meanwhile, Mr. Williams has the support of his fans, though he is learning there are limits on just how much he should share with them.
From his concert in Atlanta (at a theater with an open bar) he recalled an exchange with an audience member who, as she returned to her seat with an armload of drinks, unthinkingly offered one to him.
"She was like: 'C'mon, do it, Robin, c'mon. Mint julep?' " Mr. Williams said, exaggerating a bit. "No, ma'am, thank you. I can't really join you. She didn't get that memo."