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November 23, 2014

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Down-to-earth moment

Who: Robin Williams

When: 8 p.m. Sunday

Where: MGM Grand Garden Arena

Tickets: $100 to $225; 891-1111

You never know whom you're going to be talking to when you talk to Robin Williams. Hyper-Robin. Pensive Robin. Low-Key Robin.

I got Toned-Down Robin. Maybe Tired Robin. He was at the end of a three-day engagement in Seattle when we talked by telephone.

Williams will perform Sunday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. You can count on getting Unpredictable Robin for the show.

The stand-up comedian burst onto the American scene in the 1970s as a lovable alien in the off-beat TV series "Mork & Mindy" and has been a part of the culture since.

He's made many movies during his career. Some great ("Good Morning, Vietnam"), some dreadful ("Bicentennial Man"), but all of them interesting, if only in a curious way.

Here's our conversation:

Mr. Williams.

Mr. Fink.

How are you, sir?

Good, sir.

Where are you?

I'm in a place called Seattle.

Is it raining?

No. Actually they're having their two days of summer.

What are you doing in Seattle?

I'm preparing for Vegas, getting warmed up for the MGM. Ready to go. I have a date - three nights here. This (Thursday) is my last night.

You seem to spend a lot of time in Las Vegas. Do you have a fascination with the town?

A fascination. Yes.

What is it?

The lights. Much like a moth.

You don't play a lot of engagements here, do you? Other than a lot of benefits.

I play the MGM two or three times a year. This year only once. That's pretty much the one room I've been playing. Occasionally I do the big benefits. I've played the MGM for the Andre Agassi Grand Slam for Children for years.

Do you do a lot of stand-up around the country, or do you just do it on occasion as a break from your other things?

When I'm doing a complete tour, like I did in 2002, naturally I do a lot. But mostly it's a bit of an augment to doing movies.

Which do you prefer, stand-up or movies?

They feed each other nicely.

Your life seems to take so many different directions. Is there a method to your choices?

It has always been an effort to explore a lot of different things. I was trained as an actor at Juilliard so it was not like, "What are you doing?" I'm doing what I was trained to do. And stand-up has always been good for me because it causes you to be mentally and physically in shape.

I met a former coach who once competed against you and said you were a great athlete in high school.

Yeah. When I went to high school in San Francisco, actually Marin (north of the city), we won the North Coast in cross country. We had a two-mile relay record that stood, I think, for about 30 years. It may even still be standing.

This former coach said he also worked with Johnny Mathis, another great athlete in high school. So you're in good company.

That's cool. (Singing:) "Look at me..."

Do you still live in San Francisco?

Yes. Near the Golden Gate bridge.

You're such an active person. How do you relax and recharge your batteries?

I ride bikes. Long-distance cycling.

San Francisco must be a great place to ride a bike.

Yeah, plus north and south of the city are great. Great views. Wonderful terrain to be out on a bike.

As a celebrity, is it hard for you to get around in the public?

No. For me to get around is easy. I keep a low profile. I have a posse of one. I'm not traveling around with 25 people going, "Stand back! Stand back! He's coming this way! Stand back!"

I've seen you with the public. You're very laid back. Unassuming. You treat people well.

You have to. Anything you're doing most of the time you're the tip of the iceberg.

There's a lot of people who make it all happen, and it's always good to realize that.

My wife says everybody is working just as hard as you are, and you've got to know that.

But a lot of entertainers have big egos.

Sometimes the big ego is a compensation for being afraid. A puffing up.

Who among the comedians makes you laugh?

Oh God. Chris Rock is great. I like a guy playing Vegas right now, Bobby Slayton (at Hooters). It's interesting over the years to see how things have changed. They used to have a lot more comics in Vegas. Now it's more magicians.

More magicians and Cirque du Soleil.

Yeah. Cirque and magicians. We comedians are kind of like mammals in the age of dinosaurs.

And Cirque is getting into magic, joining forces with Criss Angel at the Luxor.

Oh yeah. What chance is there now?

What's your next project?

I start a movie in July, with John Travolta, called "Old Dogs." I guess it's about learning new tricks. But it's the idea of two guys in their 60s, two single guys, who are kind of dealing with life.

What goes through your thought processes when you select a movie?

The idea of who you're working with. Who's directing it. The fact that you're going to be spending three or four months with someone is important. The movie has to be something interesting, something I haven't done before, something like "One Hour Photo."

You have made some interesting choices in your career - "Popeye" (1980), "Good Morning, Vietnam" ('87), "Mrs. Doubtfire" ('93).

Yeah, you do something like "One Hour Photo," then you do something like "Happy Feet." It keeps it interesting. Over the years I've tried to work with real interesting people like Terry Gilliam, Paul Mazursky, Robert Altman, George Roy Hill. A real interesting mix of people. You always come away learning a lot.

Any interest in performing onstage?

The last play I did was (Samuel Beckett's) "Waiting for Godot" with Steve Martin in New York. That was, I think, 17 or 18 years ago.

Was the experience good or bad?

It was a wonderful experience. There were Steve Martin, myself, F. Murray Abraham, Bill Irwin and directed by Mike Nichols. That's a nice group. That would be a great show to bring to Vegas. Do it as a musical called "Waitin'." Cut it down to an hour and a half.

Do you do any writing?

My youngest son is a great writer, so I'm hoping that maybe he will write something for me : "Dad, the Musical."

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