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October 24, 2014

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In Las Vegas, Robin Williams remembered as ‘one of the most beloved and respected comics ever’

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Touchstone Pictures

This 1987 file photo shows actor Robin Williams in character as disc jockey Adrian Cronauer in director Barry Levinson’s comedy drama “Good Morning Vietnam.” Williams has died in an apparent suicide. He was 63.

Robin Williams Dies at 63

Robin Williams, center, takes time out from rehearsal at NBC's Launch slideshow »
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Pam Dawber and Robin Williams hold their People's Choice Awards for "Mork and Mindy" at the awards in Los Angeles on March 8, 1979.

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Robert Iger, president and CEO of The Walt Disney Co., Robin Williams and Mickey Mouse at Disneyland on Sept. 10, 2009, in Anaheim. Calif.

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Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar in a scene from the pilot episode of "The Crazy Ones" on CBS.

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Bobby Slayton, Kevin Burke and Robin Williams.

Sometimes a person’s depth of grief can be gauged by what is not said, or can’t be said, as opposed to what is said.

Jerry Lewis learned the news of the death of comic great Robin Williams this afternoon while Lewis was watching CNN. A phone call to Lewis at his Las Vegas home was answered by his wife, Sam, who quickly said, “He is too devastated to even talk about it.”

Lewis was one who inspired Williams’ brand of freewheeling comic acting onstage, on TV and in film. The man who made millions laugh for nearly 40 years died at his home in the San Francisco suburb of Tiburon this morning at age 63. The cause of death is still under investigation but is being widely reported as an apparent suicide by asphyxia.

Comics and performers who have headlined in Las Vegas over the years were shaken at the news of Williams’ death. Scott Thompson, who headlines at the Luxor as Carrot Top, said in a phone conversation, “I just heard this, and I am heartbroken. Robin Williams was one of the most beloved and respected comics ever. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like him.”

Thompson remembers meeting Williams several years ago at a fundraiser in Los Angeles for the Clinton Foundation.

“He was one of the entertainers that night, with Whoopi Goldberg, and he was very quiet, very shy,” Thompson said. “I was looking at him from across the table, like any fan would, and he was so quiet. But when they introduced him, he was manic. He was on fire. I went, ‘Wow, he really saves it all for the stage.’ “

Thompson has always mentioned Williams as one of his comic idols.

“I’m asked this all the time, who my influences have been, and he is on that short list,” said Thompson, who happened to be on vacation in San Francisco and bike riding near Tiburon when he heard the news. “Robin Williams, George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Jonathan Winters. In that top group.”

George Wallace met Williams while both were young comics working at such clubs as the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. The two share the same birthday, July 21, though Wallace was born three years earlier.

“We all loved him, and he was one who could make you laugh in every way: Standup, TV, movies,” Wallace said. “Everything he did he was just great. Even his dramatic roles were incredible. He was an amazing talent, one of the greatest ever, and working with him at the Comedy Store made you better.

“You had to be good to follow Robin Williams.”

Penn Jillette of the comedy/magic team Penn & Teller at the Rio met Williams in the ’70s in San Francisco. The duo appeared with Williams in the “Comic Relief” charity shows to benefit the homeless, and Williams was a frequent visitor to Penn & Teller’s show in Las Vegas.

Jillette, with comedian and filmmaker Paul Provenza, also recruited Williams to take part in the 2005 documentary “The Aristocrats.”

In an email, Jillette said, “Through all the sadness, we owe it to Robin to remember how funny he was. That matters.”

Williams most recently appeared in a ticketed show in Las Vegas in May 2008 at MGM Grand Garden Arena. He was a performer at the Andre Agassi Grand Slam for Children benefit galas, appearing in 1995, 1998, 1999 and from 2001-2005. He donated annually to the auctions for that charity event and also for the Keep Memory Alive Power of Love events benefitting the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health.

Cleveland Clinic founder Larry Ruvo remembers the many trips Williams took to Ruvo’s ranch in Lake Tahoe, where Williams performed for exclusive charity events to benefit the center. On one of these occasions, Williams (who had his 2009 heart surgery at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio) performed an hour of standup. But he did not perform his famous bit centered on the game of golf, which has to be one of the funniest five minutes of standup, ever.

Ruvo and Agassi, who also was in attendance, were huge fans of that routine. They approached Williams after his set and pleaded for the golf bit.

“He said, ‘I just did an hour! C’mon!’ “ Ruvo said, chuckling. “But Andre and I were begging him to do it. He said, ‘Alright, lemme eat first.’ So he ate, then took the stage again and did the golf routine and 30 more minutes. He got two standing ovations that night, and over the years he raised millions and millions of dollars for the Cleveland Clinic. He was a friend, and a supporter, and I can only say it’s just horrible what has happened. Horrible.”

Agassi spoke for himself and his wife, Stefanie Graf, in remembering Williams:

“Stefanie and I are saddened at the loss of our friend Robin Williams. He was one of the kindest, most generous people we have ever known,” Agassi said in a statement. “Our prayers are with his family and closest friends during this very sad and difficult time. Today the world has lost a beautiful soul.”

Kevin Burke, creator of the one-man show “Defending the Caveman” at Harrah’s, said, “Heaven is a lot funnier today. Robin was a genuinely warm and caring man who inspired generation of performers with his improvisational genius, coupled with his unparalleled dedication to the craft of acting. This is an incalculable loss to entertainment and humanity.”

Veteran comic and club operator Harry Basil, who runs the Laugh Factory at the Tropicana, remembers seeing Williams at the Laugh Factory and the Comedy Store in Los Angeles throughout the 1980s. Basil often appeared on the same bill, and one night Basil left the stage and had forgotten his suitcase full of props.

“Robin started using them,” Basil said in a text message. “He did an hour improvising, with my props. It was crazy, and it was hysterical.”

And it was Robin Williams, exploring a genius enjoyed by very few.

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