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CNN SPOTLIGHT: Remembering Robin
Aired October 11, 2014 - 19:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: I hate to have to report this.
NISCHELLE TURNER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): A shocking announcement.
LEMON: Actor Robin Williams is dead at the age of 63.
TURNER: The apparent suicide of Robin Williams.
LT. KEITH BOYD, MARIN COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE: Mr. Williams' life ended from asphyxia due to hanging.
ROBIN WILLIAMS, COMEDIAN: Try a little faster. See if that picks it up a little bit.
TURNER: A brilliant comedian. A celebrated actor.
WILLIAMS: Dead poets are dedicated to sucking the marrow out of life.
TURNER: Yet a tortured soul.
WILLIAMS: I will come back in the morning and I will call you if you let me.
TURNER: On camera, he found humor everywhere. But, off camera, he was struggling with a devastating depression and a frightening diagnosis.
BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: A personal statement from Robin Williams' widow. Her late husband was suffering from Parkinson's disease.
TURNER: With the world reeling from the shocking news, we look at the life and laughter.
WILLIAMS: I am what I am.
TURNER: The darkness and despair.
Now a CNN SPOTLIGHT: "Remembering Robin."
The vigil started almost immediately after the world learned that Robin Williams had died. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He could be anybody. He could be all of us.
He wasn't just Robin. He was like the collective conscious, like a conduit for a lot of people.
TURNER: Heartbreaking and shocking, because this Robin Williams, dark and depressed, couldn't have been farther from the man we first met.
Mork the alien was first introduced to us on the TV sitcom "Happy Days."
WILLIAMS: Just count to three then, specimen.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: All right. Hit him, Fonz. One, two, three.
WILLIAMS: No contest. Let's go.
WILLIAMS: I got -- it was kind of a fluke. Garry Marshall was inviting a lot of comics in to audition. It was an open call. Richard Lewis was going in, and he walked out saying, I don't speak Norwegian. So, I just went OK, and I went, now let's be crazy and see happens.
TURNER: Crazy and unscripted always seemed to work for Williams. He got the part.
WILLIAMS: Remember me? Mork from Ork? You once called me the nutso from outer space.
TURNER: Working with Henry Winkler as the Fonz.
HENRY WINKLER, ACTOR: And we started rehearsing, and I realized that I was in the presence of greatness, hands down. This is not hyperbole.
TURNER: Henry Winkler met Williams the day he got on to the set.
WINKLER: I just realized my only job is to keep a straight face. And it was impossible, because, no matter what you said to him, no matter what line you gave to him, he took it in, processed it, and then it flew out of his mouth, never the same way twice.
TURNER: Born in Chicago on July 21 of 1951, Williams grew up in Michigan, played football, then settled with his family in Marin County, California. Despite his shyness, high school drama drew him out of his shell and led him to become one of only 20 actors admitted to the prestigious Juilliard School, along with classmate Christopher Reeve.
WILLIAMS: We were both -- a program at Juilliard called the masters program, which was like an accelerated two-year program, basically to get us into the acting company really quickly. He was obviously brought in as the handsome leading man. And I was brought in as the furry character actor. TURNER: It was here that they both honed their skills.
WILLIAMS: We were both in there together, Houseman sitting in a room with us going, Mr. Williams, Mr. Reeve, the theater needs you.
TURNER: And created a lifelong friendship.
CHRISTOPHER REEVE, ACTOR: Robin Williams is the definition of generosity.
TURNER: Christopher Reeve told CNN's Larry King all about it in 1996.
REEVE: So, 22 years, we go back to Juilliard together. But there is this crazy, cockamamie story that went around that we had signed some pact.
LARRY KING, "LARRY KING LIVE": Pact?
REEVE: Yes, like, what, on a napkin in the cafeteria in Juilliard or something.
KING: Saying what?
REEVE: That if either of us gets in trouble, that we will take care of each other in the future.
TURNER: In 1976, he left Juilliard. Williams is on a fast track.
WILLIAMS: Nanu nanu.
TURNER: Mork was such a success on "Happy Days," it would spin off as its own sitcom.
WINKLER: You know, when he would break for lunch, and he was working with Jonathan Winters on his show "Mork & Mindy," they would walk down the street together, and all of the sudden just stop. And then they would start to kibitz. And then they would start to improvise. And then they would do this routine.
In minutes, almost the entire lot was standing there like an open air theater, watching these two great minds go at it.
PAM DAWBER, ACTRESS: It's a man.
TURNER: In the years after "Mork & Mindy," Williams would have great success on the stand-up comedy circuit.
WILLIAMS: It's been brief. 'Tis over, and the lights do turn bright. I'm melting. Help me.
TURNER: A comedic genius fueled by his incredible improvisation, something he discussed with James Lipton on "Inside the Actors Studio."
JAMES LIPTON, HOST, "INSIDE THE ACTORS STUDIO": Are you thinking faster than rest of us? What the hell is going on?
WILLIAMS: What it is about the mind? What is it that does this thing to you? Try and explain yourself.
TURNER: But it wasn't just Williams' brilliance. During those early years, cocaine also fueled him, and a frenetic unpredictability became a hallmark. It would be the death of his friend John Belushi in 1982 and the birth of his son that scared Williams straight. Years later, addiction became part of his historic stand-up act at the Metropolitan Opera House.
WILLIAMS: You know what I'm talk about? The Peruvian marching powder, the devil's dander. Nice thing, though, cocaine. Mmm, what a wonderful drug. Anything that makes you paranoid and impotent, give me more of that.
TURNER: Coming up: A sober Robin Williams wins over the world, but his depression is still lurking.
WILLIAMS: Mork calling Orson. Come in, Orson.
TURNER (voice-over): In 1980, Robin Williams was still starring in the popular sitcom "Mork & Mindy," when he made his big screen premiere as Popeye for director Robert Altman.
TURNER: Popeye and the handful of films that followed were mostly disappointing.
WILLIAMS: Good morning, Vietnam!
TURNER: Finally, director Barry Levinson found the actor a role that offered the perfect fit.
WILLIAMS: Is that me, or does that sound like an Elvis Presley movie? Viva Da Nang.
TURNER: His role as a rogue military disc jockey won him a nomination for best actor, as did his role as a quiet and inspiring boarding school English teacher in 1989's "Dead Poets Society."
WILLIAMS: Dead poets are dedicated to sucking the marrow out of life.
I think "Dead Poets" was probably my favorite, just to get started, the idea of doing a movie that people treated as more than a movie. I once met a guy who said, I gave up my job at Sears and became a teacher because of you. And I went, I hope things are going well.
WILLIAMS: Excuse me.
TURNER: Williams earned a third such Oscar nod for his depiction of a man who becomes unhinged and homeless after the murder of his wife.
WILLIAMS: I will come back in the morning and I will call you if you let me.
TURNER: Then came his role as Sean Maguire, community college psychology professor and therapist.
WILLIAMS: You don't know about real loss because that only occurs when you love something more than you love yourself.
TURNER: Finally, in 1997's "Good Will Hunting," the role that brought him his one and only Academy Award for best supporting actor.
WILLIAMS: You're terrified of what you might say.
TURNER: Even while tackling his serious roles, Williams never stopped being funny. And it seemed he was always on.
WILLIAMS: Movies on a plane and you see people saying, just let me off. I got to get off here. Don't you understand, I can't stand the movie. God.
BILLY CRYSTAL, ACTOR: I have had movies that have had premieres on planes.
WILLIAMS: That's always tough, when people go, I don't need the headset, thank you.
CRYSTAL: Can you put us down in Denver? We just don't like this.
WILLIAMS: Thank you. Would like to get off here. We were going to Tokyo, but please let us off.
TURNER: Williams and Billy Crystal teamed up with Whoopi Goldberg to co-host "Comic Relief," eight telethons over 20 years using their humor to heal and raise and give hope, raising more than $50 million.
WILLIAMS: Start dialing. Don't be afraid. Use your fingers. Let go of yourself for a moment and get to the phone.
TURNER: The last telethon was in 2006, the same year he played Teddy Roosevelt in "A Night at the Museum." 2006 was also the year that struggles with addiction led Williams back to rehab.
WILLIAMS: Live with Larry King.
TURNER: He would joke with Larry King about that and what came after.
WILLIAMS: You keep going because there is this strange secret organization that you go to.
KING: Yes, Alcoholics Anonymous.
WILLIAMS: Don't say it. Shh. It's unanimous. Shh. You go to those and you have find out other people who have done things that make you look Amish, and you come out the other side. Like, I almost have a year now without that, so it's good.
TURNER: But staying clean and sober would remain a challenge for Williams, even as other parts of his life seemed to be unraveling. In 2008, his 19-year marriage to his second wife would end in divorce. Then, 2009, he would be rushed to the hospital, heart problems, surgery, and a difficult recovery he'd laugh about on the "Ellen" show.
WILLIAMS: You have a heart surgery, and, literally, they open you up. They crack the box. And you get really vulnerable. You would be like, a kitten, oh, God.
WILLIAMS: It's a kitten. And you get very, very emotional about everything. But I think that's in a way a wonderful thing. It really opens you up to everything.
TURNER: Robin Williams' life trajectory would take a decided upward turn two years later. There was marriage to third wife, Susan Schneider, and his Broadway acting debut in "Bengal Tiger in at Baghdad Zoo," with Williams playing the tiger who narrates the play.
WILLIAMS: It's alarming, this life after death. The fact is, tigers are atheists, all of us, unabashed.
TURNER: Then, just last year, his career came full circle, when he returned to the small screen with former "Mork & Mindy" co-star Pam Dawber in the CBS sitcom "The Crazy Ones."
DAWBER: Never met anybody as screwy as you. You are like an alien. TURNER: But off screen, Williams was struggling with depression.
DR. DREW PINSKY, HLN HOST: He had at least three reasons to have severe depression. He clearly had the genetic basis for it. He had addiction and addiction -- and a recent relapse after a long period of sobriety. And he had cardiac surgery.
People need to keep in mind that when you have your chest opened up, the biology is such that it affects the brain and causes severe depressions many times.
TURNER: There was also something else Williams was dealing with, Parkinson's disease, a neurological disorder that affects movement. Williams was in the early stages of the disease.
DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The diagnosis of Parkinson's disease was a significant fear and burden. It would be for anyone. But in the case of Robin Williams, he used cycling and exercise as a way to help manage his depression. And the notion that he wouldn't be able to be as physically active only added to that depression.
TURNER: On Monday, he was found in his home, dead, an apparent suicide. He was 63 years old.
BOYD: The personal assistant was able to gain access to Mr. Williams' bedroom and entered the bedroom to find Mr. Williams clothed, in a seated it position, unresponsive with a belt secured around his neck with the other end of the belt wedged between the closed closet door and the door frame.
PINSKY: This poor man -- and he survived -- his cardiac disease, he survived. But the brain disease, he was taken away from his family, us, himself. The brain disease is what took him away.
TURNER: Took him away from family, fans, and friends, stunned by the loss.
ANTONIO BANDERAS, ACTOR: Yesterday, we had a superstar. Today, unfortunately, we have a legend.
TURNER (voice-over): A brilliant comedian, award-winning actor, husband, father, and friend found dead in his home at 63, Robin Williams was beloved by those who knew him.
ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER, ACTOR: We're mourning the loss of such a great man. And he was also a friend and I admired him. And he really is a legend. And he's unbelievable.
WESLEY SNIPES, ACTOR: One of the greatest. We're all blessed to have had that experience. And those of us who had the chance to work with him are even more blessed. If anything else, I learned how wonderful it is to be an artist by watching him, how wonderful it is.
Rest in peace, my brother.
TURNER: He was also revered by the fans whose lives he touched.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There is no one that can top him.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: For me, this is my hero that has passed. And it's a really devastating time.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you're having a bad day or down for any reason, watching any of his movies could lift you up.
TURNER: The closest to Williams say they're overcome by profound grief, but want his legacy to be one of happiness.
Robin's wife, Susan Schneider, released a statement reading in part, "As he is remembered, it is our hope the focus will not be on Robin's death, but on the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions."
Various marquees of L.A. comedy clubs paying tribute, from the comedy clubs of Hollywood to the San Francisco neighborhoods he called home, on the streets of New York and in the halls of Washington. The outpouring of tributes to Williams are a testament to the impact of his work.
President Obama recalled some of his most memorable roles: "Robin Williams was an airman, a doctor, a genie, a nanny, a president, a professor, a bangarang Peter Pan, and everything in between. But he was one of a kind. He arrived in our lives as an alien, but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit."
Williams' spirit was described by those who knew him as electric.
Henry Winkler worked with him on the TV show "Happy Days."
WINKLER: He was electrifying. And he was like that no matter what he did all the time. When I watched him, when we would cross paths, when he was doing his show up the street on Paramount, all I saw was boundless energy. He would work all day. He would go to the clubs at night and do stand-up and work on his act.
You met him, and there was a wave of warmth that swept out of him that covered you like a blanket.
TURNER: His talent?
WINKLER: Irreplaceable. There is no one now to fill his shoes. Those shoes will remain right there, empty forever.
TURNER: Comedians at Carolines in New York remember Williams with admiration.
CHRISTINA BASQUEZ, COMEDIAN: He was a genius. He was very, very quick. If you laughed at one of his jokes, if you didn't get it, he was on to the next one. So a lot of times when you watch his stuff, you have to rewind it and go back, because he is just so fast, and it came naturally to him.
TURNER: And at L.A.'s Comedy Store, where Williams' career took off in the '70s, Paul Rodriguez choked back tears.
PAUL RODRIGUEZ, COMEDIAN: I was working at The Comedy Store in the parking lot there hoping for open times. And he talked to the owner, Mitzi Shore, and he said, this kid deserves to be on the lineup. And I got on the lineup.
TURNER: Pauly Shore, whose family owns the club, reminisced.
PAULY SHORE, ACTOR: When we used to have the office from The Comedy Store at my mom's house on Doheny, Robin used to pick up his check from "Mork & Mindy" in his outfit, in his nanu nanu outfit. And he used to pick up his check and do nanu nanu to me.
TURNER: In Hollywood, Williams is already an icon.
BANDERAS: Yesterday, we had a superstar. Today, unfortunately, we have a legend.
MEL GIBSON, ACTOR: Well, as an individual, I think he had a lot of heart and a lot of compassion. He did a lot of things for a lot of people, publicly and privately.
He transcended his supposed sphere of expertise, which was like a benchmark as a comedian, and he crossed over into other areas and excelled at everything. So, he is gone way too soon. He was very talented, and we're all going to miss him.
TURNER: He will be missed for more than his talent.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel expressed appreciation for his military support, saying: "From entertaining thousands of service men and women in war zones to his philanthropy that helped veterans struggling with hidden wounds of war, he was a loyal and compassionate advocate for all who served this nation in uniform. He will be dearly missed by the men and women of DOD, so many of whom were personally touched by his humor and generosity."
WILLIAMS: We have raised over about a million dollars. I think there is more coming in. I feel real good.
TURNER: An active supporter of Comic Relief from its inception in 1986, Williams helped raise more than $50 million to combat homelessness.
Regarding the shocking news of his dear friend's death, Billy Crystal tweeted, "No words."
WILLIAMS: Darcy here grew up riding horses.
TURNER: Williams was also a tireless advocate for St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital. WILLIAMS: A tough cowgirl battling a rare inoperable brain
TURNER: Generous is a word used to describe him time and again by those who knew, including "Birdcage" co-star Nathan Lane.
He said: "What I will always remember about Robin, perhaps even more than his comic genius, extraordinary talent and astounding intellect, was his huge heart, his tremendous kindness, generosity, and compassion as an acting partner, colleague, and fellow traveler in a difficult world, a difficult world made lighter by the laughter Williams brought to it."
Williams leaves more comedy work behind. He has several upcoming films, including another in the "Night at the Museum" series.
Williams, who spoke often and lovingly of his three children, might likely consider them his greatest legacy.
His daughter Zelda paid tribute to her father on Twitter with a quote by the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery: "You, you alone will have stars as no one else has them. In one of the stars, I shall be living. In one of them, I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all of the stars will be laughing when you look at the sky at night."
She added: "I love you. I miss you. I will try to keep looking up."