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Robin Williams: The actor was something special

Robin Williams as disc jockey Adrian Cronauer in

Robin Williams as disc jockey Adrian Cronauer in director Barry Levinson's 1987 film "Good Morning Vietnam." Credit: AP / Touchstone Pictures

"Na-Nu, Na-Nu" were some of the first words we ever heard Robin Williams speak.

Williams was playing Mork, the fast-talking, pratfalling alien who first appeared in a 1978 episode of "Happy Days" and, later, the spinoff "Mork & Mindy." If you remember, Mork was dispatched to Earth to observe human behavior. In fact, that was just a ruse to get rid of him. On Ork, humor and emotions weren't allowed. Mork, who dressed like a mime, broke into foreign accents and carried on conversations with himself, understandably couldn't live there.

Williams, apparently, could not live on Earth. The 63-year-old comedian and actor died of an apparent suicide Monday at his Northern California home.

Unlike Mork, Williams was no wide-eyed innocent. He had a history of cocaine and alcohol abuse. But there was something childlike about Williams, a raw and unfiltered sensitivity just beneath his nonstop stream of jokes, puns and impressions. Maybe that's what they were there to protect.

Although "Mork & Mindy" turned Williams, then in his mid-20s, into a celebrity, he began gravitating toward dramatic roles. He nabbed the lead in "The World According to Garp," a 1982 adaptation of the bittersweet John Irving novel, and critics were largely impressed. "Mr. Williams is at his most affecting with the children; he makes a fond, playful father," wrote Janet Maslin in her New York Times review, "a man perfectly at home in a suit of make-believe armor made of welcome mats and garbage-can lids."

But it was the 1987 war comedy "Good Morning, Vietnam" that revealed Williams as something special. Though the film came under fire as a feel-good version of a horrible war, Williams was in fine form as Armed Forces Radio DJ Adrian Cronauer, a rebellious troublemaker ad-libbing his way through broadcasts like Alan Alda on speed. The movie launched Williams as a box-office draw.

What followed was a series of films that tugged at audiences' heartstrings. In "Dead Poets Society" (1989), he was perfectly cast as prep-school literature professor John Keating, guiding a group of boys experiencing the pangs of adolescence. He held his own against Robert De Niro in "Awakenings" (1990), in which they played, respectively, a doctor and his catatonic patient. In "The Fisher King" (1991), Williams took on the role of a mentally ill homeless man.

Still, his best film roles were yet to come: a divorced dad who dresses up like a female nanny to be close to his children in "Mrs. Doubtfire" (1993), a gay man pretending to be straight in "The Birdcage" (1996) and a hard-nosed psychologist in "Good Will Hunting" (1997). That film earned Williams an Oscar for best supporting actor.

Sometimes, Williams' smiling-through-tears persona got to be a bit much ("Patch Adams," from 1998, is a prime example), but he also starred in dark fare like Christopher Nolan's "Insomnia" and the 2002 chiller "One Hour Photo," in which he played a voyeuristic creep.

After a rehab stint for alcoholism in 2006 and 2009 heart surgery, Williams seemed to be back on track, doing voice work ("Happy Feet Two") and making movies like "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian."

If he was entering another phase in his career, it ended Monday. Williams, whose childlike energy and spirit seemed so inexhaustible, is finally at rest.

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