Robin Williams: A personality that jumped off stage and screen

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Rare is the comedian who can compete with an oversize live video feed of himself, projected across the back of the stage as he performs his act. And yet when it came to Robin Williams, those pixels never stood a chance.

I remember seeing Williams play The Chicago Theatre in 2002. My seats were all the way back in the upper balcony. The view was terrible. After staring at screens all day, the natural inclination was to do the same here — but not with Williams. That video feed couldn't compete with the enormity of the human live wire on stage. The man electrified the air in that theater that night, by force of will and the best kind of attention-deficit disorder imaginable. It was like watching someone do stand-up while running a marathon.

His struggles with substance abuse came up during that show. He was always frank about this part of his life. It was something he tackled right up to the very end; just last month he checked into rehab for what was described as "continued sobriety." He died Monday at 63 of an apparent suicide. He had a childlike gusto but a grown man's troubles.

Williams' addictions were firmly in place (as was his friendship with fellow addict John Belushi) when he broke out as a TV star in 1978 on "Mork & Mindy." It was the unlikeliest of spinoff characters to ever grace an episode of "Happy Days." The series showcased Williams' rapid-fire charm — indefatigable and just off-center enough to garner a double take or two. Maybe there was something a little alien about Williams himself — smarter than most of us and scarily good as a mimic, but also perhaps a bit more observant about the despair of the soul and the terrible burden of the human condition.

Williams once called his life as a performer a form of "legalized insanity." You could say it is a mark of his intelligence that he found that space for himself in front of the camera, or on stage as a stand-up, that served as a safe zone to indulge his quicksilver imagination. An uncontainable burst of ideas seemed to churn through his brain, a quality never more obvious than during his 2001 appearance on "Inside the Actors Studio." A lot of jokes have been made at the expense of the self-serious Bravo staple, but the Williams episode might just be his definitive interview. For the first five minutes host James Lipton is forced to sit mute as Williams, inspired by his surroundings — nothing much, really, just a generic empty stage — performs a series of improvised bits. As a variety of characters. Nonstop. And then, finally, to Lipton: "OK, we're ready now."

He was always the square peg that somehow found a way to fit the round hole of Hollywood. But first he muddled through a series of disposable films in the mid-'80s. "Club Paradise" (1986) and others like it didn't really know what to do with an actor like Williams, who was never better than when blending his anarchic comedy with a lethal dose of legitimate, dramatic pathos. Things began turning around with "Good Morning, Vietnam" in 1987 and "Dead Poets Society" in 1989 — a film in which he played a teacher who gets sacked but is so beloved by his students that they stand on their chairs in the classroom and declare, "O Captain! My Captain!"

That poem, by Walt Whitman, mourns the death of Abraham Lincoln. Williams' life, and his death, will occupy a different space in history. But his intellect was just as keen as Lincoln's, his impatience for hypocrisy just as acute.

Born in Chicago in 1951, Williams spent some of his early years in Lake Bluff and Lake Forest before the family moved to a suburb of Detroit. His father worked for the auto industry and Williams later said his role in the 1990 comedy "Cadillac Man" was a nod of sorts. "My father was a regional vice president at Lincoln Continental," he told the Tribune that year, "so he told me a lot about the world and what it was really like and how rough it was. I'd see him coming home looking almost pistol-whipped from being out there hustling, so maybe 'Cadillac Man' is almost a tribute to Dad."

Williams would come back to Chicago occasionally over the years. For a pediatric AIDS fundraiser, or a career achievement award (in 2004) from the Chicago International Film Festival. Looking back, his best films were behind him by the time he was honored by the CIFF — the Oscar for "Good Will Hunting," the vulnerable wild man of a performance in "The Fisher King," the quotable genie in "Aladdin." "The Birdcage" and "Mrs. Doubtfire," the latter of which was slated for a sequel, to star Williams once again.

His return to television last year, on the CBS sitcom "The Crazy Ones," didn't generate the noise network executives hoped for, and yet Williams' aura was never diminished. In 2010 he released a DVD of his stand-up show "Weapons of Self-Destruction," and it's hard not to wince a bit at that title now. But in the show he is as dirty and delightful as ever. Recycling is great, he says, but consider the plight of the raccoon pawing through your garbage and asking, "What the (expletive) is this (expletive)? Where are the Hefty bags? The pinata of life that used to feed an entire (expletive) family?" That moment is pure Williams. Finding sympathy for the creatures most of us would rather not have to deal with.

nmetz@tribune.com Twitter @NinaMetzNews

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