December 07, 2009 12:00 PM

Suddenly, he couldn’t breathe. In the midst of a comedy tour last spring, Robin Williams found himself in a Miami E.R. His heart—specifically his aortic valve—was failing. “It just gave out,” says Williams, 56. “It was nature’s way of saying, ‘Slow down.'” Williams underwent valve replacement surgery, but his outlook changed forever. “It was a warning shot,” he says. “I get a second chance.” He’s not taking it for granted: In September Williams restarted his Weapons of Self Destruction tour, which climaxes with a Dec. 6 HBO special; and this Thanksgiving he stars in Old Dogs with pal John Travolta.

When Williams sat down with PEOPLE’s Oliver Jones to look back on four decades as a king of comedy, there were plenty of laughs—and a few regrets. In 2006 he returned to rehab after shattering his sobriety with a three-year drinking binge. “When you relapse, you fall deeper,” says Williams, whose 19-year marriage to wife Marsha ended in divorce in ’08. “I found myself drinking to blackouts. It’s like your brain going into witness protection.” Humor helped him heal. “It’s nicer,” he says of sobriety. “Not having to apologize: ‘Did I take a dump in your tuba?'” The frantic pace of his early days is behind him. “I can’t push myself so hard now,” he says. “It’s time to chill and enjoy the ride—because it’s amazing.”

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