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Versatile Comedian Robin Williams Dies At 63


We're going to take some time to remember actor and comedian Robin Williams. He was found dead yesterday in California. Police say preliminary indications point to suicide.


For decades, Williams was known for the sheer energy of his performances. He could talk rapid-fire, changing his voice. Though, he was always Robin Williams. Here he is in "Dead Poets Society."


ROBIN WILLIAMS: (As John Keating) Now, many of you've seen Shakespeare done very much like this. Oh, Titus, bring your friend hither? If any of you have seen Mr. Marlon Brando, you know, Shakespeare can be different. Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. You can also imagine maybe John Wayne as Macbeth going well, is this a dagger I see before me? (LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: In real life, Robin Williams was married three times and was the father of three children. He was beloved by friends.

GREENE: Comedian Steve Martin called him a mensch, great talent acting partner, genuine soul. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this appreciation of his life and career.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Robin McLaurin Williams was born in an affluent Chicago home. He'd always wanted to be on stage and, eventually, attended Juilliard, until one of his teachers told him he was wasting his time there when he should be performing. So he left to work in improv groups.


BATES: Williams' big break came a few years later, when he was cast as an alien who drifted to Earth from the planet Ork. Mork from Ork ended up as the roommate of straight-arrow Mindy McConnell, played by Pam Dawber. His greeting became a cultural catchphrase.


WILLIAMS: (As Mork) Nanu, nanu.

BATES: As did his version of an alien expletive.


WILLIAMS: (As Mork) Shazbot.

BATES: After "Mork and Mindy," Williams would go on to make dozens of movies. Some were highly praised, such as his role as Russian defector Vladimir Ivanoff in 1984's "Moscow On The Hudson." Vladimir ached for America, only to discover it wasn't as perfect as he dreamed.


WILLIAMS: (As Vladimir Ivanoff) To tell you the truth, Orlando, New York frightens me. It's brutal. It's crazy.

BATES: But in the end, Vlad and New York were made for each other. Williams regaled audiences with one of his most loved roles in "Mrs. Doubtfire" as a divorced husband who dresses in drag so his unsuspecting ex-wife will hire him as their children's nanny. And he earned an Oscar for his portrayal of tough-love psychiatrist Sean Maguire in 1997's "Good Will Hunting." Here, Maguire challenges Will Hunting, an angry math genius who mops floors at MIT, to go after a girl he likes, despite his reservations.


WILLIAMS: (As Sean Maguire) You're not perfect, sport. But let me save you the suspense. This girl you met, she isn't perfect either. But the question is whether or not you're perfect for each other. That's the whole deal. That's what intimacy is all about.

BATES: In a "60 Minutes" interview in 1986, Williams credited his success to his dear friend and mentor, comedian Jonathan Winters.


WILLIAMS: Jonathan has just taught me about - the world is open for play. I mean, he's - that anything and everybody is mockable in wonderful way.

BATES: Mockable in a wonderful way - like gently poking fun at one of the most important populations in his adopted hometown.


WILLIAMS: San Francisco, where God Save the Queen has a different meaning.


BATES: Or becoming a comedic tornado in his voiceover role as the decidedly show struck Genie who channels entertainment icons. Williams' lightning mimicry goes from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Ed Sullivan in the hit Disney animated movie "Aladdin."


WILLIAMS: (As Genie) The ever impressive, the long-contained, the often imitated, but never duplicated, duplicated, duplicated, duplicated, Genie of the Lamp. Right here, direct from the lamp. Right here for your very much wish fulfillment.

BATES: But it was live on stage where Williams outdid most of his comedic colleagues. Gilbert Gottfried often did stand up in the same clubs on the same nights as Williams. He said if he was in the audience or backstage, Williams frequently called him up on stage to improvise with him.

GILBERT GOTTFRIED: You definitely had your adrenaline going and you couldn't slack off for a second.

BATES: Gottfried says his last memory of Williams is a fond one. They'd both done a benefit with Bob Saget and they'd gone to a small diner for a bite. Billy Crystal was in town and joined them.

GOTTFRIED: And the three of us went to a little restaurant. And the middle of the night, we all sat having dessert and talking and laughing. It was a great, great night.

BATES: And a great way, Gottfried says, to remember a gifted, generous man.


WILLIAMS: If there ever is an earthquake in San Francisco, it's just God saying, get those condominiums off my back.

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 12, 2014 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the original broadcast of this report, comedian Gilbert Gottfried was incorrectly called "Gilford Gottlieb."
Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.