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Out-of-this-world wit: Famed performer Robin Williams dies at 63

August 12, 2014 at 6:28 PM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: A fast-talking space alien, a manic genie with a gift for improv, an inspirational teacher with a love of literature, and a blazing stand-up comedian, all just a handful of the roles that propelled Robin Williams into the entertainment stratosphere.

Jeffrey Brown has our look at the work of the Oscar-winning actor.

JEFFREY BROWN: This afternoon, the Marin County, California, Sheriff’s Department said that Robin Williams had died by asphyxia by hanging.

LT. KEITH BOYD, Marin County Sheriff’s Office: Mr. Williams’ personal assistant became concerned at approximately 11:45 a.m., when he failed to respond to knocks on his bedroom door.

At that time, 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.

JEFFREY BROWN: Word of his death broke yesterday evening and led to an outpouring of shock and sadness from fans, friends and colleagues.

On Twitter, comedian Steve Martin wrote: “I could not be more stunned by the loss of Robin Williams, mensch, great talent, acting partner, genuine soul.”

Friend and colleague Billy Crystal wrote simply: “No words.”

And late-night host Conan O’Brien appeared shaken as he announced the news during his show.

CONAN O’BRIEN, Host, “Conan”: I’m sorry to anyone in our studio audience that I’m breaking this news. This is absolutely shocking and horrifying and so upsetting on every level.

JEFFREY BROWN: President Obama released this statement, saying: “Williams made us laugh. He made us cry. He gave his immeasurable talent freely and generously to those who needed it most.”

Robin Williams began his career in stand-up comedy and was known from the beginning for his almost out-of-this-world improvisational wit, speed, and energy.

ROBIN WILLIAMS, Comedian: I’m melting.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBIN WILLIAMS: Help me. Help me.

You’re not going to help me, are you?

(LAUGHTER)

ROBIN WILLIAMS: Nanu nanu.

JEFFREY BROWN: His big break, in fact, came in the late ’70s, playing an alien on the television show “Mork & Mindy,” where his character would often check in with his outer space superior.

ACTOR: A spaceship from the planet Necroton landed on Earth.

ROBIN WILLIAMS: Oh, no, not the Necrotons. Our arch enemies?

ACTOR: No, they’re a hockey team.

(LAUGHTER)

ACTOR: Of course they’re our arch enemies.

ROBIN WILLIAMS: Good retort, sir. That’s one for you, eight million for me.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Williams moved to film, sometimes combining his frenetic comedic style with more serious subject matter, as when he played a rebellious armed services deejay in the 1987 movie “Good Morning Vietnam.”

ROBIN WILLIAMS: Hey, this is not a test. This is rock ‘n’ roll. Time to rock it from the Delta to the DMZ. Is that me, or does that sound like an Elvis Presley movie? Viva Da Nang.

JEFFREY BROWN: In 1989′s “Dead Poets Society,” he was an unconventional English teacher at a boarding school attempting to inspire his students.

ROBIN WILLIAMS: Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.

JEFFREY BROWN: More hits came in the 1990s in a variety of roles, including “Mrs. Doubtfire,” where he played a father pretending to be a British nanny in order to see his children.

ROBIN WILLIAMS: Euphegenia Doubtfire, dear. I specialize in the education and entertainment of children.

Surprise.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Williams won an Oscar for his supporting role as a South Boston psychiatrist in 1997′s “Good Will Hunting.”

ROBIN WILLIAMS: You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap, and watch him gasp his last breath looking to you for help.

JEFFREY BROWN: Through the years, Williams returned to stand-up comedy, performing for U.S. troops overseas, winning a Grammy for a comedy album in 2002, and appearing multiple times at the Kennedy Center’s Annual Mark Twain Awards.

ROBIN WILLIAMS: Some of you are under indictment. You know who you are.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBIN WILLIAMS: So, we ask you please to turn off your cell phones and your ankle bracelets. Enjoy the evening.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Yet, throughout the many highs, he struggled with alcohol and drug addiction and with depression, and would make reference to it in his comedy routines.

Just this summer, he checked himself into a rehab clinic to help maintain his sobriety. And, today, the coroner said Williams had been seeking treatment for depression.

Robin Williams was 63 years old.