To see Robin Williams perform his standup in 1978, pre-"Mork and Mindy," was like watching the Beatles in "A Hard Day's Night." There was an exuberance, an energy, a sense that something new had been added.
I was living in Los Angeles at the time and through the connections of a friend of a friend was able to gain entry to the Comedy Store packed to fire code ocupancy to see this comedian who, so went the buzz, had this new sitcom in the fall and was going to be huge. It was one of the most exhilarating nights I've ever spent in a comedy club. The bill included Jeff Altman, Marsha Warfield and Skip Stephenson. Skip Stephenson; who flailed and bombed so badly that he could not gracefully exit the stage, although the audience dearly wanted him to, especially in anticipation of Williams.
Things got so bad that Stephenson was one-upped by an audience member whom he thought could be his patsy. When the man said he was from the city of Palms, Stephenson said, "This must be a big night out for you." The man devastatingly replied, "Well, it was." The crowd now beyond reclamation, Stevenson further floundered until a voice of encouragement could be heard from the back of the room. It was the high-pitched voice of a child: "Do the hardware store bit." It was Williams. Stevenson did the hardware store joke and mercifully exited.
And then came Williams, a Tazmanian Devil of a performer whom the stage could not contain. He wandered through the crowd, free-associating table by table. At one point, he picked up a table candle and held it beneath his chin, the flame illuminating the lower half of his face in the dark. "Remember this from camp?" he asked. It was thrilling to experience.
Then came "Mork and Mindy" and Williams, as prophesized, was huge. I attended a taping and marveled anew at his invention and spontaneous brilliance. This may have been a recurring bit for the studio audience, but at one point, the director, in setting up the next scene, playfully locked the front door of Mindy's apartment through which Williams was scripted to enter. The director called action. Williams entered through the window.
At this point, he could pack comedy clubs just by dint of a rumor that he might show up to do a set. I fell for that one on a number of occasions.
Fast forward to 1996. Disney released the direct-to-video sequel, "Aladdin and the King of Thieves," for which Williams reprised his classic character, Genie, and I got the chance to interview him one-on-one. It was thrilling to experience.
I felt a bit like Rocky Balboa in the first film: I just wanted to go the distance with Williams, or at least keep up, because whatever questions I had were merely springboards from which he would suddenly and without warning leap. And he wanted to take me with him. Ask about appearing in children's films, and he suddenly channeled Robert DeNiro hosting "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." ("You little booger eater, you're dead!"). Ask about being a part of the Disney legacy, and he became a member of a Disney cult ("Worship the mouse").
Throughout his career, Williams built an admirably eclectic resume that was testament to an artist who wanted to challenge himself. His response to a question about what drew him to reprise Genie could serve as a fitting epitaph to the titanic creative force that drove him: Playing Genie, he told me, was the opportunity to "kick out the jams and push yourself as far as you can and explore every comedic possibility. I would ask (the animators), 'Is that too much?' There is no too much... It's all possible."
This piece originally appeared on millionairecorner.com