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(CNN) – For many of us, Robin Williams came into our lives as the backward-aging Mork from Ork. Quite the big break for a man whose audience before this, were pedestrians. Show creator Garry Marshall said when he was casting Mork, his sister told him he just had to see this street performer. What has he done, Marshall asked.
"He's done nothing. He stands on a street corner and he does mime, and he passes his hat around, and they give him coins. That's what he's done so far. And you have to see him," Marshall said in an August 2000 interview.
From the very beginning, there was something unpredictable and even unsafe about what Williams brought to the small screen sitcom world. You never knew what was scripted, and what was his manic improvisation.
He was a marvel of perpetual motion, like one of the "Looney Tunes" come to life. But even in the earliest days of his career, Williams' co-stars knew there was a flip-side to his manic energy. Some of it fueled by drugs, as he acknowledged on "The Tonight Show" with his idol, comedian Jonathan Winters.
"When I first met him on Mork and Mmindy, we did, we had a marvelous–," Winters said.
"Those were good days," Williams interjected.
"You had access to more medication," Winters says.
"Yeah, some of the shows were real quick!" Williams jokes.
"I noticed the stuff wore off tonight," Winters said.
Williams never really gave the impression that he was trying to hide a darker side from anybody. It was right there.
In one "Mork & Mindy" episode, Robin Williams as Mork, met Robin Williams as Robin Williams, and it became a meta commentary on shadows that fame casts.
"Today, I was chased by a mob of people who wanted to tear my clothes off. Is it because they said I looked like you?" Mork says in the episode.
"Well, there's kind of a resemblance. Sounds like you just went through celebrity 1A. How'd it feel?" Williams said.
"Oh, it was frightening. I mean, why do you want to take a job where they tear your clothes off and throw you in the air?" Mork said.
The drugs were a way to cope with depression and with celebrity madness, Williams would later say, a way to fill the fear. Harsh criticism he would admit, could immobilize him.
But however messy his personal life – divorces, rehab – his career was meteoric.
After a string of comedy hits, directors began to channel Williams' undercurrent of sadness in dramatic roles.
Suicide figures prominently in 1989's "Dead Poets Society," the film in which Williams played the English teacher we all wish we had.
It wasn't a hard-and-fast rule, but often when a bearded Robin Williams showed up on screen, it was a serious Robin Williams.
For his turn in "Good Will Hunting," Williams won the Academy Award for best supporting actor. A crowning achievement for any actor. Though Williams would later tell fellow comedian Marc Maron that the natural high from it, didn't last long.
"People say, you have an Academy Award, the Academy Award lasts about a week, and then one week later people are going "Hey, Mork!" Williams told Maron in 2010.
Williams, whose legend is rooted in stand-up, returned to the stage in 2009. The title of his final HBO special, self-aware and sadly appropriate on this day, was "Weapons of Self Destruction."
"As an alcoholic, you will violate your standards quicker than you can lower them. You will do s*** that even the devil would go: 'Dude!'" Williams says.
There were constant demons, as he told Maron, in a conversation that soon took a turn towards one time when he thought about suicide.
"When I was drinking there was only one time when I thought for a moment, 'Aw f*** life.' And I went like, then, even my conscience was like, 'Did you really just say f*** life? Because you have a pretty good life,'" he said. "First of all, you don't have the balls to do it."
He made so many of us laugh. He provided comfort to millions. But ultimately, the struggles were too much too bear.
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The Lead with Jake Tapper draws not only on Tapper’s deep knowledge of politics and national issues, but also seeks to examine and advance stories across a wide range of topics that demonstrate his own curiosities and interests. Compelling headlines come from around the country and the globe, from politics to money, sports to popular culture, based on news drivers of the day.
The Lead with Jake Tapper airs weekdays at 4 p.m. ET.
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