A true comic genius [Commentary]

They were called "round-robins" — a way of dividing up the stars of the new television season and the hundred or so critics who had come to Los Angeles to interview them. Instead of one unwieldy gathering, the critics divided into three groups and the stars rotated through.

Maybe stars isn't the right word. These were actors on shows that had yet to air who hoped to become stars. The year was 1978, and I was the new TV critic for The Evening Sun on my first West Coast network tour, a biannual event.

The word quickly circulated among the younger critics (I was 27) to forget the round-robin schedule and follow this one guy from room to room. His show sounded pretty stupid — a guy from outer space living with some wholesome female roommate — but he was hilarious.

The show was, of course, "Mork and Mindy." And the star — indeed he was — was Robin Williams.

We followed him throughout that hotel (he was wearing glasses but at some point in each interview would reach through one of the missing lenses and scratch his eyelid). And that night, we caught him in action at The Comedy Store, one of the best places for up-and-coming standup acts in L.A. He recognized us and did a quick riff on critics among his antic, manic, amazing set of comedy. We had never seen anything like it. We never would again.

Williams' death was stunning in part because it seems impossible to still a spirit so strong, so full of energy, of inventiveness, of life. How could that all disappear in an instant?

On that 1978 tour, we saw more of Williams when ABC had him do a routine for the critics gathered for a big press conference with network executives. Again brilliance.

Usually when an unknown became a star because their show became a hit, that was the last the critics would see of him or her. People who had been begging us to talk to them a few months before now had no time for us. Robin Williams was not one of those. He showed up at the next tour six months later. At a press conference, he was asked how it happened that he was born in Scotland before moving at a young age to Detroit. He sheepishly admitted he had made that up when ABC gave him the biography form to fill out.

And if there was a problem with interviewing Williams, it was that — he couldn't give a serious answer. We would try but he would soon be off on a comic riff that would have the room convulsed in laughter. And then he would apologize because he realized he had done it again. It was hard to write a story, but we didn't complain.

In one of those "Mork and Mindy" years, ABC invited its stars to a party where the critics could interview them. I stepped outside to take in the scene amid the paparazzi awaiting arrivals, and Williams again seemed to recognize me, came over and asked how I was doing. I was stunned by that, but also by the incessant strobe-like light show as the paparazzi did their thing. He didn't seem to notice. This was his life now.

One thing I remember about that first night at The Comedy Store — he couldn't get off the stage. Either his riffs were working, the crowd was with him, and he had to ride the wave. Or they weren't working, the crowd was flat, and had to recover.

Now that we learn of his depression, I think back on the man who told us of growing up an only child in an affluent Detroit suburb, creating these characters in the attic to entertain his toy soldiers, who so wanted the approval of that audience that night, who basked in it when he was getting it, who yearned for it when he wasn't.

Seeing Robin Williams in 1978 was a brush with comic genius, like encountering Einstein in a Vienna coffee house right before he published the Theory of Relativity. Every time I saw him in a movie after that, no matter how good he was, I saw him restrained by someone else's words, someone else's character, when I knew how many words and characters were in him straining to get out.

Unfortunately it appears that the one character that eluded him was that of Robin Williams. All of us in the audience loved him, but he must have never believed it.

Michael Hill was television critic for The Evening Sun from 1978-1992. His email is hillforg@aol.com.

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