HALFWAY through his stand-up tour of America last year, comedian Robin Williams began to run short of energy. When he developed an irregular heartbeat and started gasping for air he was rushed to hospital.
Doctors discovered he had a faulty heart valve and he underwent 3 1/2 hours of surgery to replace it with an aortic valve from a cow.
"It's nice, because you can crap standing up," he says on the line from his home in San Francisco. "I was hoping to get a new Apple iHeart, which would be great because you can download different applications . . . like compassion."
As you'd expect from his million or so appearances on television, the jokes come thick and fast with Williams. During the course of our 20-minute interview he adopts accents from outback Australia and the Deep South, he impersonates Bob Hope and reprises his character Ramon from Happy Feet.
But his brush with death seems to have left the Oscar-winning movie star more reflective and introspective. Finding out your heart is about to give out is bad enough, but the incident came only two years after his older brother Robert died following heart surgery.
"It certainly gives you a sense of mortality and you appreciate the little things like breath," he says. "It's a very powerful thing and it does make you realise you're vulnerable."
A year or so later and Williams is fighting fit. He has a new girlfriend in his life, designer Susan Schneider, who helped nurse him back to health, and he's about to embark on his first ever standup comedy tour of Australia.
At 59, Williams' comedy routines are no longer the cocaine-fuelled, crazy stream of consciousness he became famous for in the late 1970s and early '80s.
"There's a little bit more tempo to it and it's paced a little bit easier. It's not as frenetic because of the new heart, but it's still pretty high energy. There's a lot more savouring-the-moment versus ahggaa-daa-baa-dah!"
Weapons of Self Destruction toured more than 100 cities in the US, UK and Canada throughout 2008 and 2009 and spawned a HBO special that's been nominated for three Emmy Awards. But Williams says his November tour will have plenty of new material.
"There'll be a lot of stuff I find from now 'til then," he says. "And when I come to Australia, there'll be a lot of good stuff there--you're a good source of comedy."
Williams' penchant for Aussie jokes landed him in hot water earlier this year when he described Australians to David Letterman as "basically English rednecks."
Former PM Kevin Rudd took exception to the description while strangely ignoring Williams' suggestion during the same interview that we enjoy drinking our own urine.
"I've never offended a prime minister before," he says, still clearly bemused by the whole redneck incident. "I probably mis-chose the word. I was thinking: English Good Ol' Boys. Is that better?"
In fact it's pretty apparent Williams is very fond of Australia, which he describes as an amazing country. He's visited many, many times and says his favourite place is Palm Beach, north of Sydney, with which he became familiar during regular visits to see Peter Weir, Dead Poets Society director.
He recalls asking Weir one time why there were saltwater swimming pools next to the beautiful blue ocean. Putting on an ocker accent he says Weir's answer was: "Ahh well, ya don't wanna go in there now, the box jelly fish are out and the sting is like getting hit with a blowtorch.' I was like: 'Great!'"
His most recent visit Down Under was in February to record his voice track for George Miller's Happy Feet 2 at Fox Studios in Sydney.
"It's my favourite thing in the world to do voices for animation," he says. "Man, I had so much fun working with George."
He explains Miller's technique is to throw the entire cast together in a room before recording so they can improvise gags for the film. It's about time Williams appeared in a guaranteed movie blockbuster like Happy Feet 2, because his film career has been languishing for the past few years.
His recent CV includes a string of poorly regarded films including RV and Licence to Wed. It reached a nadir with last year's four-time Razzie nominee Old Dogs--typical reviews include the phrases "aggressively awful" and "worse than Battlefield Earth."
The problem doesn't appear to be his abilities--it's the studio executives who have him pegged in a box.
"With studios they basically don't like to bet on long shots," he says.
But Williams has always had what he describes as a cyclical career, veering from critical acclaim and an Oscar award for Good Will Hunting, to derision for schmaltzy sentimental films such as Patch Adams. He even finds it hard to pick the lowest point.
"There was a period after Popeye (1980) where I was like: Oh s---, that didn't go very well. And then you kind of come back from that and then you'd probably say that after Bicentennial Man (1999) where there was another one like: Oh, oh. Here we go again!"
Williams came out of his last career slump thanks to a series of small movies in which he played against type, including One Hour Photo and Insomnia.
"Once in a while someone will take a chance and say: 'People think of you as a nice guy so wouldn't it be good for you to play a psychopath?' I went 'F---ing A!'"
Smaller independent movies may once again restore his onscreen reputation, thanks to critical raves for the $10 million indie World's Greatest Dad, directed by his good friend and stand-up comedian Bobcat Goldthwait.
Despite a title which makes it sound like another middlebrow comedy, World's Greatest Dad is actually a very dark, blackly comic gem. Williams now appears to have the choice between accepting mediocre but well-paid studio comedies, or doing interesting and critically well-regarded movies that pay badly.
He's chosen the latter, which is why this year he's in the unusual position of not having a film to promote. That's a big change for an actor who has starred in an average of three to five movies a year for the past two decades.
"There were years where they were actually advertising movies as this is a movie without Robin Williams," he says.
His resurrected standup career goes hand in hand with his new career focus.
"You're going out there and doing it for the love of it. Standup literally pays the bills. It beats going door to door."
SEE Robin Williams in Weapons of Self Destruction, November 11 and 12, Sydney Entertainment Centre, www.ticketmaster.com.au. Tickets on sale Sept 2