The Sad Clown (Robin Williams)

The news of Robin Williams's death was shocking. How could the guy who made millions laugh with his endless life force be dead?

A few hours after I heard the news, I got a text from my god-daughter, saying everyone on her bus was freaking out that it was a suicide.

I kept drifting back to the black velvet painting I'd been mesmerized by when I was a kid. My folks subjected us to a lot of super-cheap, tacky motels in the '70s; black velvet Elvis paintings were the norm for wall art. This particular night, a sad clown with tears dripping down his made-up face stared at me as I lay in bed.

I don't think I ever thought of clowns the same way. When I saw them in circuses or birthday parties, everyone else was laughing, but I wanted to comfort them.

I remember when Robin as "Mork" showed up on Happy Days. You just knew something great had stepped onto the TV screen. Even the Fonz was upstaged.

The spin-off, Mork and Mindy, was a fun breath of zany, alien air. Immediately my curly-haired high-school pal Duff, who looked a bit like a young Robin, went out and bought rainbow suspenders and wore them every day.

We took turns doing the "Mork" handshake, "Nanu nanu!"

But I can't say Robin really won my heart over until Mrs. Doubtfire.

What can I say? I'm a sucker for hairy men in dresses. I adored Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, too.

When I was 24, my best pal T, tired of the fact that my idea of culture only included horror movies and musicals, took me to see Steve Martin and Robin Williams in Waiting for Godot at Lincoln Center.

Naturally, when she told me we were going to see Steve Martin and Robin Williams, I assumed it was for a night of comedy, not Samuel Beckett's masterpiece.

"It's like they're just waiting around for nothing!" I screamed in frustration after the show.

"Exactly!" she said, laughing.

But laughing was what had gotten me through the play that was, shall we say, a bit too heady for me at the time. It felt like the slightest gesture from Robin pulled the laughter out of me, evidently at quite a few times when I don't think I was supposed to be laughing.

My girlfriend Lee loves, loves, loves David Letterman, and I have to admit, I'd much rather be watching almost anything on HBO, but one night a few years ago, Robin Williams was on, and so I cozied up next to her to watch the show.

He launched joke after joke, rapid-fire. Letterman just had to say a word or two to ignite him, and he was off on another trail.

I made the mistake of laughing at his joke "What's so bad about the F bomb. It's not a bomb. Nobody got hurt!" and missed the next joke.

He went everywhere from Laurence Olivier to John Wayne to a hysterical impersonation of Hitler with a speech impediment. The audience was screaming.

Only Robin Williams could make Hitler funny.

But watching his barrage of jokes and impersonations, it occurred to me that he hadn't revealed anything truly personal about himself.

Everyone was laughing at the sad clown, and nobody saw the tears.