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Williams a comic force, versatile actor

NEW YORK -- 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, of course, made part of his comedy.

“Cocaine is God's way of telling you you are making too much money,” he would say.

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Local celebs, public figures mourn for Robin Williams
This March 23, 1998 photo shows Robin Williams holding his Oscar high backstage at the 70th Academy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles after he won Best Supporting ...

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