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David Letterman offers touching tribute to longtime friend Robin Williams

Aug. 19, 2014 at 12:34 PM ET

David Letterman paid tribute Monday night to the late Robin Williams, with whom the “Late Show” host shared a friendship for almost four decades.

Letterman devoted a 10-minute segment to Williams, who died last week of an apparent suicide. The 63-year-old comic actor had appeared on Letterman’s shows almost 50 times.

“Two things would happen, because Robin was on the program,” Letterman told his audience. “One, I didn’t have to do anything; all I had to do was sit here and watch the machine. And, two, people would watch; if they knew Robin was on the show, the viewership would go up, because they wanted to see Robin. And, believe me, that wasn’t just true of television. I believe that was true of the kind of guy he was. People were drawn to him because of this electricity.”

Letterman said the two befriended each other 38 years ago at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, a hotbed at the time for emerging comedians, including former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno, Elayne Boosler and Jimmy Walker. Letterman recalled how it was common for comics to make fun of new acts at the venue, and prepared to do the same when an emcee announced a new comedian from Scotland was about to take the stage.

“We were feeling pretty smug about our position right away, because [the material] is going to be haggis, and that kind of crap,” Letterman recalled. “So, we’re relaxed, we’re ready to go, and all of a sudden, he comes up on stage, and — you know what it is — it’s like nothing we had ever seen before, nothing we had ever imagined before.”

The comedians, he said, knew they were watching someone special.

“We’re like morning dew; he comes in like a hurricane. And now, the longer he’s onstage, the worse we feel about ourselves,” Letterman said, with a laugh, “because it’s not stopping. And then he finishes, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s it, they’re going to have to put an end to show business, because what could happen after this?’”

MORK & MINDY, Robin Williams, Pam Dawber, 1978-82, © Paramount Television / Courtesy: Everett Collec
©Paramount Television/Courtesy
"Na-nu Na-nu" and "O Captain, my Captain": Robin Williams will best be remembered by the characters he played and lines he delivered.

Williams later landed a leading role on ABC’s “Mork & Mindy,” propelling him to national stardom. Soon thereafter, he invited Letterman to appear on that show.

“Now, this is a double-edged sword, because he did it only because he was trying to help other fledgling, starting-out comics,” Letterman said. “The other side of the sword is I had no business being on that show. I can’t — I have no business being on this show. ... So, even to the detriment of the [‘Mork & Mindy’] show, Robin was kind enough to invite me to come on, because he thought, ‘Why can’t I spread this around and have some of my friends share in my success?’ — which is exactly what he did.”

Letterman said he really didn’t get to know Williams until Letterman started hosting “Late Night” on NBC in 1982. Seven years after Letterman’s 1993 move to CBS, the host took leave for heart surgery, and, upon his return, was greeted on-air by Williams, sporting medical scrubs and a surgical mask.

“Aren’t you glad you didn’t see this at the surgery?” said Williams, removing the mask and pretending to lean over an operating table. “‘Hey, Dave, it’s me! They just thought it’d be real funny!’”

Late-night hosts pay tribute to Robin Williams

Letterman’s tribute also included clips of Williams’ quips, stage antics and boisterous laughter beside an equally amused Letterman.

After the montage, the host appeared to be choked up. “Beyond being a very talented man and a good friend and a gentleman, I’m sorry, like everyone else,” he said. “I had no idea that the man was in pain, that the man was suffering. But what a guy, Robin Williams.”

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