Robin Williams rebounds with HBO show

Originally published on December 6, 2009 | | written by Mike Hughes

It takes a lot to slow the hyper-drive pace of Robin Williams.

He's been a star for 32 years. His stand-up work - including an HBO special Sunday - is full-force comedy, leaping between characters and ideas.

But yes, things sometimes stop him. There were his alcohol and cocaine addictions in the 1980s; there have been new troubles in the last decade.

Williams was "going through a relapse, three years of heavy drinking," he said. "And then going to rehab in wine country, just to keep my options open. And then coming out of that and - you know, divorce. ... And open-heart surgery. Besides that, everything has been wonderful."

The surgery was March 13, at the prestigious Cleveland Clinic. "I woke up, going, 'Where am I?' "

"And they said, 'Cleveland.' And I kept going, 'Why?' "

Afterward, he said, "You take all these things that have horrible side effects: 'This will really help you, but it could actually cause your head to explode. ... One of the side effects is rectal ventriloquism.' "

He also had to adjust to getting a cow's valve. "I went, 'Wow, that's great.' The grazing is easy.' "

By the end of July (when he had this interview with reporters) his mind was quick and he was zipping through one-liners:

"How about the dollar bill? Instead of 'In God We Trust,' it just says 'Trust me.' "

"Is it proper to Twitter during sex? 'OMG! OMG!' "

"We're going to have a whole generation of people who (won't) know how to use a map. ... I was driving across the Golden Gate Bridge and my GPS said, 'Take a right turn.' (I'm thinking:) 'Why? Have you seen my movies lately?' "

The next step, he said, would be to resharpen his body. "It's going to be this idea of, 'Can I do the hour-and-a-half, the long program?' "

Williams is 58 now, long removed from his childhood in Michigan (where his dad was an auto executive) and California. He's described himself as a lonely kid who opened up when he found theater.

He finished high school in the San Francisco area (where he still lives), briefly studied political science, then got into John Houseman's elite acting program at Juilliard.

Broad comedy came first, though. Williams was in Richard Pryor's TV show and the revived "Laugh-in," then was an outer-space alien in a "Happy Days" dream scene. That was spun into his breakthrough series.

"Mork & Mindy" leaped to No. 3 in the Nielsen ratings in 1978-79, then faded with weak writing, lasting only four seasons. By then, Williams was ready for movie stardom.

Most of the early roles were comic, many were manic. Still, he said, they helped him become a serious actor. "That's why I can do something like 'World's Greatest Dad' or 'Insomnia' or 'One Hour Photo.' Because the comedy lets you go, 'Don't be afraid.' "

He went a long stretch without a tour, but kept his stand-up skills on cable, including HBO's "Young Comedians" special in 1977, four solo specials (1978, 1983, 1986, 2002) and nine "Comic Relief" fundraisers.

"Finally, after seven years, Robin comes home to HBO," says the network's Sue Naegle.

Cincinnati native Marty Callner will direct Williams' show. He has directed or produced dozens of HBO concerts, including Williams' 2002 "Live on Broadway," and shows starring Jerry Seinfeld, Madonna, George Carlin, Whitney Houston, Britney Spears and the Rolling Stones.

"Weapons of Self-Destruction" might include some political material, but Williams said that's tougher with Barack Obama in office.

"The whole world is looking at America like we've just come out of rehab."

Less a political satirist, Williams is a turbo-driven comic with the heart of a clown, the soul of an actor and the valve of a cow.

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