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Cecil B. DeMIlle honoree: Robin Williams

Heady trip from mime to big time

It’s been 26 years since the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. first presented Robin Williams with a Golden Globe — a TV comedy actor trophy for ABC’s “Mork & Mindy.” Since then, he’s been nominated for many more Globes, and has won four others.

Still, learning that he’d be this year’s recipient of HFPA’s Cecil B. DeMille Award caught the comedian off guard.

“I kind of went, ‘Does this mean it’s over?’ ” Williams says. “Usually, it’s like, ‘Thank you all. I remember the first movie where they had sound. I remember when they actually had actors that weren’t virtual.’ ”

Of course, to figure out how he got to the place where the HFPA would recognize him for career achievement, it helps Williams to start from the beginning — growing up in Chicago and Detroit, the son of a Lincoln Mercury-employee father and a fashion-model mother.

But even that story seems to get riffed on.

“I was pretty quiet,” he says. “I had an imaginary agent, but that’s all.”

When did the comedy come out? “It didn’t happen until college — would you use the word closet? Maybe. It wasn’t until I went to school and started taking improv theater classes that Pandora’s box opened.”

The new discovery quickly led to academic disaster: He failed the economics classes he was taking at Claremont College and dropped out.

But a scholarship to Juilliard soon followed, and he studied in Manhattan under John Houseman. He also met a lifelong friend, the late Christopher Reeve, at the school.

Years later, he pokes fun at Houseman’s decision to turn TV pitchman. “He was always saying, ‘You and Mr. Reeve can do amazing things (in theater),’ and then we saw him leave and go sell Volvos.”

Williams started street performing around this time, doing mime in front of the Museum of Modern Art. But after two years, he dropped out of Juilliard, as well.

Once again, academic disaster led to divine intervention: Back in San Francisco, he started performing stand-up. “There was a Lutheran coffeehouse that had lesbian poetry and then stand-up comedy,” he recalls. “It made for an interesting audience.”

Williams’ star soon started to rise. “The idea was to get good enough to go to L.A., because everyone was trying to get on ‘The Tonight Show’ or ‘Merv Griffin,’ ” he says.

He soon made the journey south. And after an initial paying gig at the Laff Stop, Jay Leno recommended him to Mitzi Shore, the owner of the Comedy Store.

“Slowly but surely,” he says, “the word got out that there was this strange comic.”

After a false start in TV — remember the remake of “Laugh-In”? — Williams landed a spot on ABC’s “Happy Days,” where he

hatched the character of zany, jumpsuited space alien Mork.

The character proved popular enough that Paramount TV soon spun Williams into his own series alongside Pam Dawber. That launched in the fall of 1978 on ABC.

The way “Mork & Mindy” was produced was a huge departure from the sitcom norm at the time.

“It was me riffing, playing,” Williams says. Attempts by show producers to coax him into standard mugging worked “like a skin graft on a leper,” he adds.

The show took off, anyway, and so did Williams’ career, but there was a glitch.

He was hugely popular, but seen more as a kinetic comic than an actor of any skill. His first attempted breakout role, in the ill-conceived — despite Robert Altman at the helm — “Popeye” didn’t do much to change that.

But in 1982, along came a lead role in the adaptation of John Irving’s novel “The World According to Garp,” and perceptions changed — or, at least, minds that got used to Williams as this wacky comic in rainbow suspenders, were blown.

“It was going back to what I learned at Juilliard,” Williams says. “People would go, ‘This is so strange,’ and I said, ‘No, this is what I was trained to do.’ ”

What followed is a career that has seamlessly alternated between comedy as broad as 1993’s “Mrs. Doubtfire” and drama as quirky as 2002’s Mark Romanek-directed “One Hour Photo.”

The genres are two sides of the same thing, he says. “Sometimes you do stand-up tragedy. Someone said the difference between comedy and tragedy is perception.”

Along the way, he has garnered four film acting Golden Globes on 10 noms, and one Oscar — a supporting nod for “Good Will Hunting” in 1998.

“The moment they say your name, English becomes a second language,” he says of receiving his Academy Award. “You look up, you see certain people, you see your family. ‘Oh, there’s (castmates) Matt (Damon) and Ben (Affleck), and there’s (fellow nominee) Burt Reynolds. He’s not happy.’ ”

But he also acknowledges, “It’s kind of like getting to the top of K2, and you realize, ‘I have to come down.’ And then it’s, ‘Congratulations on your Oscar.’ A month later, it’s ‘Didn’t you…?’ And two months after that, it’s like, ‘Mork!’ ”

Williams has also excelled in voice-over roles in animated features, starting with Disney’s 1992 blockbuster “Aladdin” (for which he won a special Globe) and Fox’s CGI-animated “Robots,” due out next year. The work, he says, returns to his stand-up strengths.

On the live-action side, he’ll also appear in the David Duchovny-directed “House of D” next year, as well as “The Big White,” a black comedy co-starring Holly Hunter.

Despite Williams’ angst over his HFPA award, org president Lorenzo Soria says he needn’t fret.

“Sometimes people confuse the DeMille Award with a lifetime career award. It’s an award to any person who has contributed significantly to the entertainment industry in any given year. We gave it to Judy Garland when she was 40, Frank Sinatra when he was 40. We feel (Williams is) an artist that encompasses all the worlds we live in — the worlds of television and cinema, and in cinema both drama and comedy…And we are proud to honor him.”