The American actor Robin Williams (1951–2014) was one of the most popular and well-loved film performers of the 1980s and 1990s. A manic comic personality, Williams was also convincing in serious roles, and his range extended from family fare to stories with mature content.
Robin Williams's father was an executive with Ford Motor Company, and Williams spent part of his school years in a 40-room house in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, a prosperous suburb of Detroit. Born in Chicago, Illinois, on July 21, 1951 (some sources say 1952), Robin was the only child of his parents, and although each parent had an older child from a previous marriage, he was often left to his own devices. Williams was steered toward humor by both parents. His mother, a former model, enjoyed reciting funny poetry, and he and his father shared an enthusiasm for the work of role-playing American comic Jonathan Winters. Williams often sought the attention of his father, who insisted on being called “sir,” and sometimes addressed him as Lord Stokesbury, Viceroy of India.
After his father's retirement, Williams and his parents moved west to Tiburon, California, north of San Francisco. After graduating from high school, he enrolled at a succession of schools without graduating from any of them. At Claremont Men's College he studied political science until a class in improvisational comedy left him hooked on the performing arts. He then transferred to the College of Marin and studied theater until a scholarship to the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City prompted another move. A renowned music and theater college, Juilliard exposed Williams to top-rate students and teachers: famed actor John Houseman was among his instructors and his classmates included actors William Hurt, Mandy Patinkin, and Christopher Reeve, the last of whom was Williams's roommate.
Williams's characterization of Mork inspired a new television show, Mork & Mindy, with Williams playing opposite human love interest Pam Dawber and, in later episodes, his longtime idol Winters, cast in the role of a baby named Mearth who aged in reverse. The producers of the show allowed Williams the latitude to improvise on the set, and he responded with routines in which he would drink water through his finger or comically misunderstand English idiomatic expressions. Meanwhile, he continued to do stand-up, and in the summer of 1978 he opened a multiact bill in San Francisco that featured folk singer Joan Baez and film comedian Steve Martin; he upstaged both, earning a standing ovation. The following year, Williams released the best-selling LP recording Reality … What a Concept.
These successes earned Williams his first starring role in Popeye, a 1980 adaptation of a classic newspaper comic strip featuring a spinach-eating sailor. The film earned mixed reviews, but Williams's presence was strong enough to propel him to comic roles in two more significant films: The World according to Garp (1982), based on a novel by John Irving, and Moscow on the Hudson (1984), in which he played an immigrant Russian musician trying to adjust to American life. A raunchy 1986 beach comedy, Club Paradise, paid him well but he saw it as a purely commercial enterprise that did not tap his particular talents, and the film was savaged critically.
Early in his career, Williams began to use drugs and alcohol heavily, and the growing pressures of his film career made the situation worse. On the set of Mork & Mindy he suffered panic attacks and used drugs to self-medicate. “Cocaine has been in Hollywood since the beginning of Hollywood,” he once said during an interview quoted by biographer Andy Dougan in Robin Williams. “I think it's the pressure—some people snap. I used it to try and kind of numb out and forget; it was a reaction to sometimes try and escape from it all. I had a reverse metabolic reaction to cocaine; I would do it [and become] catatonic. People think I must have been really wild; no, it was the exact opposite.”
With a young child, Zachary (born 1983), in the house, Williams moderated his substance intake. He bounced back from the disappointment of Club Paradise with Good Morning Vietnam (1987), playing a freewheeling disc jockey (based on actual radio personality Adrian Cronauer) posted in the city of Saigon during the Vietnam War. The film allowed Williams to stretch out with his own outrageous, improvsatory personality in the scenes in which he was shown broadcasting on the radio (director Barry Levinson kept him closer to the script in dramatic scenes in which he was away from the microphone), and his energy propelled the film to commercial success. It also earned Williams an Academy Award nomination for best actor.
Williams earned another Best Actor nomination for Dead Poets Society, in which he played an unconventional English teacher at a Vermont preparatory school who urges his students to “carpe diem” (Latin for “seize the day” ). A third came for his work on The Fisher King (1991), a portrayal of a man who becomes crazed and homeless after his wife is murdered in a random shooting. Williams was steadily building a major film persona, playing intense, troubled figures who might be funny or tragic but always reflected his own manic energy and personal charisma. In 1990 he appeared as a therapist in Awakenings, a feature film based on the memoirs of author Oliver Sacks.
Taking a break from the screen, Williams provided vocals for the animated films FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1991) and Aladdin (1992). In the latter film he played a genie who, thanks to Williams's improvisatory genius, morphed into a variety of other figures. He altered the original script of the film to such a degree that it was ruled ineligible for the Best Adapted Screenplay category at that year's Academy Awards, but partial compensation came when he was discussed as a possible Best Actor nominee, something unprecedented for a voice-only role. In 1993 Williams starred in Mrs. Doubtfire, the first in a successful group of family-oriented films, taking on the role of an unemployed actor who plays the role of a British nanny so that he can be near his children in the home of his divorced wife. The film was the second-biggest financial success of the year, trailing only the dinosaur extravaganza Jurassic Park. Another triumph was Good Will Hunting (1997), in which Williams played the supporting role of a psychiatrist working with prodigy Will Hunting (played by Matt Damon).
In the midst of this run of success, Williams's personal life was anything but. He and Velardi divorced in 1988, after several episodes in which he became involved with other women; the following year he married the family's nanny, Marsha Garces. That marriage ended in divorce in 2010, after the couple had children Zelda and Cody. In 2011, Williams married Susan Schneider, who cared for him during his difficult final illness. Meanwhile, Good Will Hunting finally yielded Williams his first Academy Award win, for Best Supporting Actor. He also received five Golden Globe Awards for Best Actor as well as the Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement honor. Other awards for his work included four Grammy awards for Best Comedy Album, two Emmy awards, and two Screen Actors Guild awards.
During the Weapons of Self Destruction tour, Williams was forced to undergo cardiac surgery, but he quickly recovered and returned to work. Several films later, in the fall of 2013, he began to experience motor difficulties, paranoid delusions, and memory loss. Doctors diagnosed him with Parkinson's disease in spite of the fact that most Parkinson's victims remain clear-headed. In 2014, while filming Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, Williams complained of severe difficulties in moving and remembering his lines. The film would become his last on-screen appearance; he had a voice role in the poorly reviewed 2015 film Absolutely Anything. By mid-summer, Williams's symptoms seemed to lift briefly, but on the evening of August 11, 2014, he was found at his home in Tiburon, having hanged himself with a belt. An autopsy showed that he suffered not from Parkinson's but from the rarer degenerative disease Lewy body dementia. He was 63 years old.
David, Jay, The Life and Humor of Robin Williams: A Biography, Quill, 1999.
Dougan, Andy, Robin Williams, Orion, 1998.
Independent (London, England), August 13, 2014, p. 38.
New York Times, May 28, 1989, p. A1; August 12, 2014, p. A1.
Washington Post, August 11, 2014.
WashingtonPost.com , October 2, 2016.