Robin Williams personified the history of comedy.
His standup act included territory claimed by Henny Youngman's one-liners, manic impressions, non sequiturs, rapid-fire improvisation, observational humor and all three Marx Brothers.
All could surface within a 60-second span.
Comic genius flashing like chain lightning was the shining side of a personality that also struggled with the dark — substance abuse and depression. A recent story revealed the actor had also been diagnosed with early stage Parkinson's disease.
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Dramatic movie roles Williams played ranged from Oscar-winning to off-putting.
A professional life that was wildly creative and unpredictable ended this week — at the age of 63 — with his suicide.
Following are a pair of first-person anecdotes from The Tribune's files by men who worked with Williams.
Jonathan Winters was one of the few comedians who could improvise at the same level as Williams.
Winters spoke to Telegram-Tribune reporter Teresa Mariani about the prison of being typecast as a funny-man in an article published Oct. 29, 1998. Winters was an honoree at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival.
"'Even Robin (Williams) is doing more serious things these days than comedy, if you notice,' Winters said.
It’s not that Winters didn’t enjoy all his comedy roles — or his time on TV in the late 1970s and early 1980s working with Williams. 'I worked (on “Mork and Mindy”) for a year and a half. And it was fun to work with him,' Winters said of Williams.
'He is quite a talent. But it wasn’t exactly my dream role.'"
Donovan Marley featured Williams on stage before he was a household name. The theater company that Marley founded was a stepping stone for many — now notable — actors, and the story of the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts concludes this profile.
This year PCPA is celebrating 50 years; Marley left PCPA for Denver where he retired in 2004 after 21 years at the Denver Center Theatre Company.
Marley remembered the ability of Williams to galvanize an audience even without dialogue in an interview with Tribune reporter David Vienna on March 2, 2003; in a non-speaking role, Williams "got three full-house laughs."
Williams won a best supporting actor Academy Award for "Good Will Hunting" in 1997.
The following story was published in the Telegram-Tribune on May 23, 1981, by Denise M. Caruso:
PCPA: 15 years in the spotlight
Lest you've stopped believing in miracles — or the power of hard work — please consider the following:
Twenty-one years ago, a still wet-behind-the-ears young man named Donovan Marley arrived in Santa Maria from Portales, N.M., (population 8,000) to fulfill two lifelong dreams: "to live in a big town" and to teach drama — at Santa Maria High School.
In 1964, Marley returned to a new job in Santa Maria — director of drama at Allan Hancock College — after finishing graduate studies in drama at the University of Texas.
The school had no theater and no drama curriculum. But not for long. Starting with 22 students and 20-hour days of energy, Marley converted a badminton court into a 120-seat (99 if the fire marshal was looking) theater in an unused two-story section of a World War II flying school building.
By 1967 his company — the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts — numbered 71.
"It grew like topseed," said the man who now bears the title "Artistic Director" of the internationally known repertory company. "All I ever wanted to do was theater, and I approached it one project at a time. I wanted to do things because they intrigued me."
"At first I wrote the publicity, designed the costumes, built the sets, directed, sold tickets. When it got too big for one person, I started hiring people to do the things I never wanted to do again."
He even got people to do the things he enjoyed — but he hopes they never find out how he did it. In the summer of 1968, Marley said, he wanted some professionals to work with him. So, "the way all shyster entrepreneurs do it, I made a dream list of all the people I'd work with if I possibly could.
"I called the first, most influential one and read him the rest of the list. Of course he accepted. I called the next, and went on down the line. If it works, you're in clover. If it doesn't, you've had it. But you only have to do it once, either way.
"When I set a goal, it doesn't occur to me that anyone else wouldn't be interested in the same goal. So 11 of the 12 I called came. It never occurred to me that they wouldn't."
Everything Marley's done in theater has borne that mark of single-minded determination.
The tiny town he grew up in was "barren," he said. "Then I saw in a short period of time a gifted high school drama teacher's productions of Moliere's 'The Miser,' Cohen's 'The Tavern' and Thornton Wilder's 'Our Town.'
"I was enormously drawn to theater. I literally read everything in the Portales City Library!" He directed his first scene during his junior year at Eastern New Mexico University, and knew he's found his niche even though he'd been acting extensively until then.
"At first I was shy and withheld from getting too involved," he said. "But once I got a handle on the nature and politics of it, then it became exciting."
At 44, Marley can look back at 15 years of PCPA seasons and still be as excited about it now as he was back then.
He likes to steer his own boat, and one of the things he did away with most quickly at Hancock was the standard proscenium stage.
"It's like watching TV," he said of the set-up where the audience faces toward the actors and perceives the action as through a picture frame. "It bores me to tears."
His alternative was the thrust stage — more commonly know as 'theater in the round." "Instead of being a picture, the actor has depth because he's seen from all sides. It's like sculpture, instead of painting. Nobody in 400 seats is more than 30 feet away from an actor."
The thrust stage in PCPA's Marian Theater has borne the weight of thousands of professional actors and students, some of whom have gone on to make quite a splash on larger stages.
One is Robin Williams, the brilliant comedian best known as "Mork" and more recently as "Popeye" in Robert Altman's film. Another is Lauren Tewes, seen weekly as the cruise director of television's "Love Boat." Both left PCPA in 1973.
"We've had some people come through here who are very successful, and I like to think we didn't hurt them at all," Marley said firmly. "But when a teacher takes credit ... I'm not responsible for the success of any of my students. Or the failure.
"I try never to tell them they won't make it, but I have helped a LOT of them say that for themselves. I do not believe in 'guru' acting teachers. That's total nonsense."
In the same way that Marley keeps himself separate from the decisions of his students, he allows his audiences to either like or dislike the plays he selects each season — even though it's sometimes less than fun to do so.
"The pressure on anyone in the arts to compromise a vision is a continual one," he said.
"Either you resist and become unpopular or become a politician, resisting and looking like you are not. In Santa Maria, there are 60,000 people, and we sold 130,000 seats this year.
"That's one of the larger theater operations in the country. And I don't believe we can exist and not take our audience with us."
He recites a story about a day in the production of "Godspell," in the late '70s: a season subscriber tore up his tickets at the box office and threw them, saying the award-winning musical was "blasphemous;" the same afternoon a man, his wife and their child came to his office to tell him they were seeing it for their fourth time.
"They said it was the most important spiritual experience of their lives," Marley said. "The point is if someone doesn't consider that that's the point of drama, then you're in trouble."
But Marley has faith in his audiences and, it seems they in him.
"I'm proud that there [are] about 5,000 people who will come see anything we do," he said.
"I call it the trust bond — a name I coined myself. It says, 'The majority of the time I will not bore you. I may even excite you, and will sometimes offend you. But in four or five years time, I will do enough important things that this theater will become a major part of your life.' Five thousand people understand that, and that's what I'm most proud of."
NOTE: The phrase "grew like topseed" was probably based on the phrase "grew like Topsy".
The meaning: something that grows or increases on its own without apparent design or intention.
It paraphrases the Harriet Beecher-Stowe novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin" where a slave girl named Topsy struggles when asked to explain where she came from or how she grew.