Robin Williams

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This article is about the American actor and comedian. For other uses, see Robin Williams (disambiguation).
Robin Williams
Robin Williams 2011a (2).jpg
Williams at the Happy Feet Two premiere, 2011
Born Robin McLaurin Williams
(1951-07-21)July 21, 1951
Chicago, Illinois, United States
Died August 11, 2014(2014-08-11) (aged 63)
Paradise Cay, California, U.S.
Cause of death
Asphyxia due to hanging
(preliminary autopsy results)
Resting place
Ashes scattered in San Francisco Bay
Occupation Actor, stand-up comedian, film producer, screenwriter
Years active 1972–2014
Spouse(s)
  • Valerie Velardi
    (1978–1988; divorced)
  • Marsha Garces
    (1989–2010; divorced)
  • Susan Schneider
    (2011–2014; his death)
Children 3
Comedy career
Medium Stand-up comedy, film, television
Genres Stand-up comedy, character comedy, improvisational comedy
Influences Jonathan Winters, Peter Sellers, Richard Pryor
Website www.robinwilliams.com

Robin McLaurin Williams (July 21, 1951 – August 11, 2014) was an American actor, comedian, film producer, and screenwriter. Starting as a stand-up comedian in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the mid 1970s, he is credited with leading San Francisco's comedy renaissance.[1] After rising to fame as Mork in the TV series Mork & Mindy (1978–82), Williams went on to establish a career in both stand-up comedy and feature film acting.

His film career included acclaimed work such as Popeye (1980), The World According to Garp (1982), Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Dead Poets Society (1989), Awakenings (1990), The Fisher King (1991), and Good Will Hunting (1997), as well as financial successes such as Hook (1991), Aladdin (1992), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), Jumanji (1995), The Birdcage (1996), Night at the Museum (2006), and Happy Feet (2006). He appeared in the music video for Bobby McFerrin's song "Don't Worry, Be Happy".

Williams was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor three times and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as therapist Dr. Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting. He received two Emmy Awards, four Golden Globe Awards, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, and five Grammy Awards.

On August 11, 2014, Williams died of an apparent suicide by hanging at his home in Paradise Cay, California.[2]

Early life and education

Robin McLaurin Williams was born at St. Luke's Hospital[3] in Chicago, Illinois, on July 21, 1951.[4] His mother, Laurie McLaurin (c. 1923 – September 4, 2001), was a former model from Jackson, Mississippi.[5] His father, Robert Fitzgerald Williams (September 10, 1906 – October 18, 1987) was a senior executive in Ford Motor Company's Lincoln-Mercury Division.[6][7] Williams had two brothers: Robert Todd Williams (June 14, 1938 – August 14, 2007) and McLaurin Smith.[8] He had English, Welsh, Irish, Scottish, German, and French ancestry.[9] While his mother was a practitioner of Christian Science, Williams was raised as an Episcopalian[10][11] and later authored the comedic list, "Top Ten Reasons to be an Episcopalian."[12]

Williams attended public elementary school at Gorton Elementary School (now Gorton Community Center) and middle school at Deer Path Junior High School (now Deer Path Middle School),[13] both in Lake Forest, Illinois. He described himself as a quiet and shy child who did not overcome his shyness until he became involved with his high school drama department.[14] His friends recall him as being very funny.[13] In late 1963, when Williams was twelve, his father was transferred to Detroit. They lived in a 40-room farm house on 20 acres[6] in suburban Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where he was a student at the private Detroit Country Day School.[13][15] He excelled in school, where he was on the school's soccer team and wrestling team, and became class president.[16]

As Williams's father was away much of the time, and his mother also worked, he was attended to by the family's maid, who was his main companion. When Williams was 16, his father took early retirement and the family moved to Woodacre, California.[17] There, Williams attended Redwood High School in nearby Larkspur where he graduated in 1969, and was voted "Most Likely Not to Succeed" and "Funniest" by his classmates.[18]

After high school graduation, Williams enrolled at Claremont Men's College in Claremont, California to study political science, then later dropped out to pursue acting.[6][19] Williams then studied theatre for three years at the College of Marin, a community college in Kentfield, California. According to Marin drama professor James Dunn, the depth of Williams's talent first became evident when he was cast in the musical, Oliver! as Fagin, and that Williams sometimes improvised, which put cast members in hysterics.[20] Dunn called his wife after one late rehearsal to tell her that Williams "was going to be something special."[20]

In 1973, Williams attained a full scholarship to the Juilliard School in New York City. He was one of only 20 students accepted into the freshman class and one of only two students to be accepted by John Houseman into the Advanced Program at the school that year; the other was Christopher Reeve. William Hurt and Mandy Patinkin were also classmates.[21][22] Reeve remembers his first impression of Williams when they were two new students at Juilliard:

He wore tie-dyed shirts with track suit bottoms and talked a mile a minute. I'd never seen so much energy contained in one person. He was like an untied balloon that had been inflated and immediately released. I watched in awe as he virtually caromed off the walls of the classrooms and hallways. To say that he was "on" would be a major understatement.[22]

Reeve and Williams had a class in dialects taught by Edith Skinner, who, Reeve said, was one of the world's leading voice and speech teachers. Skinner had no idea what to make of Williams, adds Reeve, as Williams could instantly perform in any dialect, including Scottish, Irish, English, Russian, Italian, and many others.[22] Their primary acting teacher was Michael Kahn, who was "equally baffled by this human dynamo," notes Reeve. Williams already had a reputation for being funny, but Kahn sometimes criticized his antics as simple stand-up comedy. In a later production, Williams silenced his critics with his convincing role of an old man in The Night of the Iguana, by Tennessee Williams. "He simply was the old man," observed Reeve. "I was astonished by his work and very grateful that fate had thrown us together."[22]

Williams left Juilliard during his junior year in 1976 at the suggestion of Houseman, who said there was nothing more Juilliard could teach him.[21][23] His teacher at Juilliard, Gerald Freedman, notes that Williams was a "genius," and the school's conservative and classical style of training did not suit him, therefore no one was surprised that he left.[24]

Career

Stand-up comedy

After his family moved to Marin County, Williams began his career doing stand-up comedy shows in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1970s. His first performance took place at the comedy club, Holy City Zoo, in San Francisco, where he worked his way up from tending bar to getting on stage.[25] In the 1960s, San Francisco was a center for a rock music renaissance, hippies, drugs, and a sexual revolution, and in the 1970s, Williams helped lead its "comedy renaissance," writes critic Gerald Nachman.[1]:6 Williams says he found out about "drugs and happiness" during that period, adding that he saw "the best brains of my time turned to mud."[21]

He moved to Los Angeles and continued doing stand-up shows at various clubs, including the Comedy Club, in 1977, where TV producer George Schlatter saw him. Schlatter, realizing that Williams would become an important force in show business, asked him to appear on a revival of his Laugh-In show. The show aired in late 1977 and became his debut TV appearance.[21] Williams also performed a show at the LA Improv that same year for Home Box Office.[26] While the Laugh-In revival failed, it led Williams into a career in television, during which period he continued doing stand-up at comedy clubs, such as the Roxy, to help him keep his improvisational skills sharp.[21][27]

"Forty minutes later Robbin Williams walked off the stage. The audience was a spent force. They were laughed out. They weren't going to laugh at anyone else probably for a year. They were draped over the chairs in a state of total exhaustion. Williams had given us a comic exhibition of such energy and imagination that "tour de force" doesn't come close. Alexei and I and the other comedians had stood in the wings, slack-jawed, struggling to absorb the realisation that stand-up comedy could reach such heights. I have never seen before or since an act that so totally overwhelmed the senses that you prayed for mercy as you screamed with laughter."

Andy de la Tour, British comedian, describing Williams's unannounced appearance[28]

Williams traveled to England in the early 1980s where he was a relatively unknown US TV actor. He dropped in to the London Comedy Store unannounced, and its regular comedians Alexei Sayle and Andy de la Tour decided to let Williams perform first to warm up the audience.[28]

Early influences

Williams has credited other comedians with having influenced and inspired him, including Jonathan Winters, Peter Sellers, Nichols and May and Lenny Bruce, partly because they attracted a more intellectual audience by using a higher level of wit.[1]:43 He also liked Jay Leno for his quickness in ad-libbing comedy routines, and Sid Caesar, whose acts he felt were "precious."[29]

Jonathan Winters became his early "idol," with Williams first seeing him on TV when he was eight, and Williams paid him homage in interviews throughout his career.[1]:259[30] Williams was inspired by Winters's ingenuity, realizing, he says, "that anything is possible, that anything is funny. . . He gave me the idea that it can be free-form, that you can go in and out of things pretty easily."[1]:260

During an interview in London in 2002, he told British television host Sir Michael Parkinson that Peter Sellers was an important influence, especially his multi-character roles in Dr. Strangelove: "It doesn't get better than that." Williams owned a rare recording of Sellers's early radio Goon Shows[31] British comedy actors Dudley Moore and Peter Cook were also among his influences, he told Parkinson.

Williams was also influenced by comedian Richard Pryor's fearless ability to talk about his personal life on stage, with subjects including his use of drugs and alcohol, and Williams added those kinds of topics during his own performances. By bringing up such personal matters as a form of comedy, he told Parkinson, it was "cheaper than therapy," and gave him a way to release his pent up energy and emotions.[1]:121[32]

Televised live performances

Williams won a Grammy Award for the recording of his 1979 live show at the Copacabana in New York, "Reality...What a Concept". Some of his later tours, after he became a TV and film star, include An Evening With Robin Williams (1982), Robin Williams: At The Met (1986), and Robin Williams Live on Broadway (2002). The latter broke many long-held records for a comedy show. In some cases, tickets were sold out within thirty minutes of going on sale.[33]

After a six-year break, in August 2008, Williams announced a new 26-city tour titled "Weapons of Self-Destruction". He said that this was his last chance to make jokes at the expense of the Bush administration, but by the time the show was staged, only a few minutes covered that subject. The tour started at the end of September 2009 and concluded in New York on December 3, and was the subject of an HBO special on December 8, 2009.[34][not specific enough to verify]

Hardships in performing stand-up

Williams stated that partly due to the stress of doing stand-up, he started using drugs and alcohol early in his career. He further stated that he never drank or did drugs while on stage but occasionally performed when ill with a hangover from the previous day. During the period he was using cocaine, Williams said it made him paranoid when performing on stage.[29]

Williams described the life of stand-up comedians like himself:

It's a brutal field, man. They burn out. It takes its toll. Plus, the lifestyle—partying, drinking, drugs. If you're on the road, it's even more brutal. You gotta come back down to mellow your ass out, and then performing takes you back up. They flame out because it comes and goes. Suddenly they're hot, and then somebody else is hot. Sometimes they get very bitter. Sometimes they just give up. Sometimes they have a revival thing and they come back again. Sometimes they snap. The pressure kicks in. You become obsessed and then you lose that focus that you need.[1]:34–35

Some, like critic Vincent Canby, were concerned that Williams's monologues were so intense it seemed as though at any minute his "creative process could reverse into a complete meltdown." Williams felt secure he could not run out of ideas as the constant change in world events would keep him supplied.[29] He also explained that he often used free association of ideas while improvising in order to keep audience interest.[35] Williams noted that the competitive comedy club atmosphere could cause problems. For example, some comedians accused him of intentionally copying their jokes, although Williams strongly denied ever doing so.[29] Whoopi Goldberg explained that it is difficult for comedians to not pick up and reuse another comedian's material, and that it is done "all the time."[36] He later avoided going to performances of other comedians to deter similar accusations.[36]

During a Playboy interview in 1992, he was asked whether he ever feared losing the ability to speak openly about those kinds of events and subjects, and admitted that he would, "if I felt like I was becoming not just dull but a rock, that I still couldn't spark, still fire off or talk about things." While he attributed the recent suicide of novelist Jerzy Kosiński to his fear of losing his creativity and sharpness, Williams felt he could overcome those risks. For that, he credited his father, who he said gave him self-confidence, telling him to never be afraid of talking about subjects which were important to him.[29]

Television

Williams in 1979. The photo was taken by Michael Dressler and used for the March 12, 1979 cover of Time magazine. It was installed in the National Portrait Gallery to commemorate Williams after his death.

After the Laugh-In revival and appearing in the cast of the short-lived The Richard Pryor Show on NBC, Williams was cast by Garry Marshall as the alien Mork in a 1978 episode of the hit TV series Happy Days[21][37] after impressing the producer with his quirky sense of humor when he sat on his head when asked to take a seat for the audition.[38] As Mork, Williams improvised much of his dialogue and physical comedy, speaking in a high, nasal voice. Mork's appearance was so popular with viewers that it led to a spin-off hit television sitcom, Mork & Mindy, which ran from 1978 to 1982; the show was written to accommodate Williams's improvisations. Although he played the same character as in Happy Days, the show was set in the present, in Boulder, Colorado, instead of the late 1950s in Milwaukee. Mork & Mindy at its peak had a weekly audience of 60 million and was credited with turning Williams into a "superstar."[21] According to critic James Poniewozik, the show was especially popular among young people, as Williams became a "man and a child, buoyant, rubber-faced, an endless gusher of invention."[39]

Mork became an extremely popular character, featured on posters, coloring books, lunchboxes, and other merchandise.[40] Mork & Mindy was such a success in its first season that Williams appeared on the March 12, 1979, cover of Time magazine, then the leading news magazine in the U.S.[41][42] The cover photo, taken by Michael Dressler in 1979, is said to have "[captured] his different sides: the funnyman mugging for the camera, and a sweet, more thoughtful pose that appears on a small TV he holds in his hands" according to Mary Forgione of the Los Angeles Times.[43] This photo was installed in the National Portrait Gallery in the Smithsonian Institution shortly after Williams's death to allow visitors to pay their respects.[43] Williams was also on the cover of the August 23, 1979, issue of Rolling Stone magazine, with the cover photograph taken by famed photographer Richard Avedon.[44][45]

Starting in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, Williams began to reach a wider audience with his stand-up comedy, including three HBO comedy specials, Off The Wall (1978), An Evening with Robin Williams (1982), and Robin Williams: Live at the Met (1986). Also in 1986, Williams co-hosted the 58th Academy Awards.[46]

Williams was also a regular guest on various talk shows, including The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson[47] and Late Night with David Letterman, on which he appeared 50 times. Letterman, who knew Williams for nearly 40 years, recalls seeing him first perform as a new comedian at the Comedy Store in Hollywood, where Letterman and other comedians had already been doing stand-up. "He came in like a hurricane," said Letterman, who said he then thought to himself, "Holy crap, there goes my chance in show business."[48]

His stand-up work was a consistent thread through his career, as seen by the success of his one-man show (and subsequent DVD) Robin Williams: Live on Broadway (2002). He was voted 13th on Comedy Central's list "100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time" in 2004.[49]

Williams and Billy Crystal were in an unscripted cameo at the beginning of an episode of the third season of Friends.[50] His many TV appearances included an episode of Whose Line Is It Anyway?,[51] and starred in an episode of Law and Order: SVU. In 2010, he appeared in a sketch with Robert De Niro on Saturday Night Live, and in 2012, guest-starred as himself in two FX series, Louie and Wilfred.[52] In May 2013, CBS started a new series, The Crazy Ones, starring Williams,[53] but the show was canceled after one season.[54]

Film actor

Williams's first film was the 1977 low-budget comedy Can I Do It 'Till I Need Glasses?. His first major performance was as the title character in Popeye (1980); though the film was a commercial flop, the role allowed Williams to showcase the acting skills previously demonstrated in his television work.[55][56] He also starred as the leading character in The World According to Garp (1982), which Williams considered "may have lacked a certain madness onscreen, but it had a great core".[25] Williams continued with other smaller roles in less successful films, such as The Survivors (1983) and Club Paradise (1986), though felt these roles did not help advance his film career.[25]

Williams's first major break came from his starring role in director Barry Levinson's Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), which earned Williams a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor.[37] The film takes place in 1965 during the Vietnam War, with Williams playing the role of Adrian Cronauer, a radio "shock jock" who keeps the troops entertained with comedy and sarcasm. Williams was allowed to play the role without a script, improvising most of his lines. Over the microphone, he created voice impressions of people including Walter Cronkite, Gomer Pyle, Elvis Presley, Mr. Ed, and Richard Nixon.[25] "We just let the cameras roll," said producer Mark Johnson, and Williams "managed to create something new for every single take."[57]

Williams at the 62nd Academy Awards in 1990 with journalist Yola Czaderska-Hayek

Many of his later roles were in comedies tinged with pathos.[58] Williams's roles in comedy and dramatic films garnered him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (for his role as a psychologist in Good Will Hunting),[37] as well as two previous Academy Award nominations (for playing an English teacher in Dead Poets Society (1989), and for playing a troubled homeless man in The Fisher King (1991)).[37] In 1991, he played an adult Peter Pan in the movie Hook, although he said he would have to lose twenty-five pounds.[59]

Other acclaimed dramatic films include Moscow on the Hudson (1984), Awakenings (1990), and What Dreams May Come (1998).[60] In the 2002 film Insomnia, Williams portrayed a writer/killer on the run from a sleep-deprived Los Angeles policeman (played by Al Pacino) in rural Alaska.[61] Also in 2002, in the psychological thriller One Hour Photo, Williams played an emotionally disturbed photo development technician who becomes obsessed with a family for whom he has developed pictures for a long time.[62]

Among the actors who helped him during his acting career, he credits Robert De Niro from whom he learned the power of silence and economy of dialog when acting, to portray the deep-driven man. From Dustin Hoffman, with whom he co-starred in Hook, he learned to take on totally different character types, and to transform his characters by extreme preparation. Mike Medavoy, producer of Hook, told its director, Steven Spielberg, that he intentionally teamed up Hoffman and Williams for the film because he knew they wanted to work together, and that Williams welcomed the opportunity of working with Spielberg.[63] Williams benefited from working with Woody Allen, who directed him and Billy Crystal in Deconstructing Harry (1997), as Allen knew that Crystal and Williams had often performed together on stage.[64]

His penetrative acting in the role of a therapist in Good Will Hunting (1997) deeply influenced some real therapists, and won him an Academy Award.[65] In Awakenings (1990) Williams played the role of Oliver Sacks, the doctor who wrote the book. Sacks later said the way Williams's mind worked was a "form of genius." Williams played a private school teacher in Dead Poets Society in 1989, which included a final emotional scene which some critics said "inspired a generation" and became a part of pop culture.[66] Looking over most of Williams's films, one writer is "struck by the breadth of Williams' roles," how radically different most were.[67]

Terry Gilliam, who co-founded Monty Python and directed Williams in two of his films, The Fisher King and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), noted in 1992 that Williams had the ability to "go from manic to mad to tender and vulnerable," adding that to him Williams was "the most unique mind on the planet. There's nobody like him out there."[29]

Williams at the Australian premiere of Happy Feet Two in December 2011

During his career, he starred as a voice actor in several animated films. His voice role as the Genie in the animated, musical fantasy film, Aladdin (1992) was written specifically for Williams. The film's directors stated that they took a risk by writing the role, and successfully convinced him to take it.[68] Through approximately 30 hours of tape,[6] Williams was able to improvise much of his dialogue and impersonated dozens of celebrity voices, including Ed Sullivan, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Groucho Marx, Rodney Dangerfield, William F. Buckley, Peter Lorre, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Arsenio Hall.[69] At first, Williams refused to take the role since it was a Disney movie, and he did not want the studio profiting by selling toys and novelty items based on the movie. He accepted the role with certain conditions: "I’m doing it basically because I want to be part of this animation tradition. I want something for my children. One deal is, I just don’t want to sell anything — as in Burger King, as in toys, as in stuff."[70] The film went on to become one of his most recognized and best loved roles, and was the highest grossing film of 1992, winning numerous awards, including a Golden Globe for Williams; Williams's performance as the Genie led the way for other animated films to incorporate actors with more star power for voice acting roles.[71]

Williams continued to provide voices in other animated films, including FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992), Robots (2005), Happy Feet (2006), and an uncredited vocal performance in Everyone's Hero (2006); he also voiced the holographic Dr. Know character in the live-action film A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). He was the voice of The Timekeeper, a former attraction at the Walt Disney World Resort about a time-traveling robot who encounters Jules Verne and brings him to the future.[72]

In 2006, Williams starred in The Night Listener, a thriller about a radio show host who realizes that a child with whom he has developed a friendship may or may not exist; that year, he starred in five movies, including Man of the Year,[60] was the Surprise Guest at the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards,[73] and appeared on an episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition that aired on January 30, 2006.[74]

He was portrayed by Chris Diamantopoulos in the made-for-TV biographical film Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of Mork & Mindy (2005), documenting the actor's arrival in Hollywood as a struggling comedian.[75]

Theatre actor

Williams appeared opposite Steve Martin at Lincoln Center in an Off-Broadway production of Waiting for Godot in 1988.[76] He made his Broadway acting debut in Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on March 31, 2011.[77] He headlined his own one-man show, Robin Williams: Live on Broadway, that played at The Broadway Theatre in July 2002.[78]

Personal life

Marriages and children

Williams and Garces at the 61st Academy Awards in 1989

On June 4, 1978, Robin Williams married his first wife, Valerie Velardi. They met in 1976 when he worked as a bartender at a tavern in San Francisco.[79] Their son Zachary Pym "Zak" Williams was born in 1983. During Williams's first marriage, he was involved in an extramarital relationship with Michelle Tish Carter, a cocktail waitress whom he met in 1984.[80][81] Williams and Velardi divorced in 1988.[82]

On April 30, 1989, he married Marsha Garces, Zachary's nanny, who was pregnant with his child. They had two children, Zelda Rae Williams (born 1989) and Cody Alan Williams (born 1991). In March 2008, Garces filed for divorce from Williams, citing irreconcilable differences.[81][83] Their divorce was finalized in 2010.[84] Williams married his third wife, graphic designer Susan Schneider, on October 23, 2011, in St. Helena, California.[85] Their residence was Williams's house in Sea Cliff, a neighborhood in San Francisco, California.[81]

Williams stated, "My children give me a great sense of wonder. Just to see them develop into these extraordinary human beings."[86]

Family and friends

Williams with Christopher Reeve in 1995

While studying at Juilliard, Williams befriended Christopher Reeve with whom he had several classes in which they were the only students. In 1995, Reeves was in a horse-riding accident which rendered him a quadriplegic until his death in 2004. Williams and Reeve remained close friends for the nine years after Reeve's accident, and Williams visited him often to cheer him up. When Williams visited him in the hospital quite a while after the fall, Reeve said that it was the first time since the accident that he laughed, and Williams told him that he would do anything to help him: "My old friend had helped me know that somehow I was going to be okay."[22]:16 When Reeve's medical insurance ran out, Williams paid many of his bills out of his own pocket, and after Reeve's widow, Dana, died in 2006, he provided practical and financial support for their 14-year-old son.[22][87]

On August 14, 2007, Williams's elder brother, Robert Todd Williams, died of complications from heart surgery performed a month earlier.[88][89]

Other interests

Williams was a supporter of his hometown's professional sports teams, the San Francisco 49ers and the San Francisco Giants.[90]

Williams was a member of the Episcopal Church. He described his denomination in a comedy routine as "Catholic Lite—same rituals, half the guilt."[91] He has also described himself as an "honorary Jew,"[92] and on Israel's 60th Independence Day in 2008, he appeared in Times Square along with several other celebrities to wish Israel a "happy birthday,"[93]

Williams speaking at the 2008 BBC World Debate

Williams was an enthusiast of video games and named two of his children after game characters. He named his daughter after Princess Zelda from The Legend of Zelda,[94] and at one time they were both featured in an ad for Nintendo.[95] He did not state which game he named his son Cody after.[96] He enjoyed pen-and-paper role-playing games and online video games, playing Warcraft III, Day of Defeat, Half-Life,[97] and Battlefield 2.[98] He was previously a fan of the Wizardry series of role-playing video games.[99] Williams was also a player of the massively-multiplayer online game World of Warcraft by Blizzard Entertainment.[100] Williams performed live at Google's keynote session at the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show,[101] and participated in a live demonstration of Spore by invitation of the game's creator Will Wright at the 2006 Electronic Entertainment Exposition.[102] Williams was one of several celebrities to participate in the 2007 Worldwide Dungeons & Dragons Game Day in London.[103][dead link]

Williams's favorite books were the Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov; the actor expressed enthusiasm at the idea of playing the character Hari Seldon in an adaptation.[104] His favorite book growing up as a child was The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, which he later shared with his children.[105]

A fan of professional road cycling, Williams was a regular on the US Postal and Discovery Channel Pro Cycling team bus and hotels during the years Lance Armstrong dominated the Tour de France.[106]

Williams enjoyed listening to jazz ("specifically Keith Jarrett piano solos"), Tom Waits, Radiohead, and Prince.[105]

Philanthropy

Williams aboard the USS Enterprise in 2003

In 1986, he teamed up with Whoopie Goldberg and Billy Crystal to found Comic Relief USA, an annual HBO television benefit devoted to the homeless, which has raised $80 million as of 2014.[107] Bob Zmuda, creator of Comic Relief, explains that Williams felt blessed because he came from a wealthy home, but wanted to do something to help those less fortunate.[108] Williams made benefit appearances to support literacy and women's rights, along with appearing at benefits for veterans. He was a regular on the USO circuit, where he traveled to thirteen countries and performed to approximately 100,000 troops.[109]

Williams and his second wife, Marsha, founded the Windfall Foundation, a philanthropic organization to raise money for many charities. In December 1999, he sang in French on the BBC-inspired music video of international celebrities doing a cover of The Rolling Stones' "It's Only Rock 'n Roll (But I Like It)" for the charity Children's Promise.[110]

In response to the 2010 Canterbury earthquake, Williams donated all proceeds of his "Weapons of Self Destruction" Christchurch performance to helping rebuild the New Zealand city. Half the proceeds were donated to the Red Cross and half to the mayoral building fund.[111] Williams performed with the USO for U.S. troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan.[112]

Williams supported St. Jude Children's Research Hospital for several years.[113]

Addiction and health problems

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Williams had an addiction to cocaine.[37][114] Williams was a casual friend of comedian John Belushi,[29] and the sudden death of Belushi, with the birth of his son Zak, prompted him to quit drugs and alcohol: "Was it a wake-up call? Oh yeah, on a huge level. The grand jury helped too."[37] Williams turned to exercise and cycling to help alleviate his depression shortly after Belushi's death, according to his cycling partner and bicycle shop owner Tony Tom; Tom stated that Williams told him "cycling saved my life".[115][116]

Williams started drinking alcohol again in 2003, while working on a film in Alaska.[114] In 2006 he checked himself in to a substance-abuse rehabilitation center in Newberg, Oregon, saying he was an alcoholic.[117][118]

Years afterward, he acknowledged his failure to maintain sobriety but said he never returned to using cocaine, declaring in a 2010 interview:

No. Cocaine – paranoid and impotent, what fun. There was no bit of me thinking, ooh, let's go back to that. Useless conversations until midnight, waking up at dawn feeling like a vampire on a day pass. No.[114]

Williams was hospitalized in March 2009 due to heart problems. He postponed his one-man tour for surgery to replace his aortic valve.[119][120] The surgery was successfully completed on March 13, 2009, at the Cleveland Clinic.[121][122]

In mid-2014, Williams admitted himself into the Hazelden Foundation Addiction Treatment Center in Lindstrom, Minnesota, for treatment related to his alcoholism.[123]

Williams's publicist Mara Buxbaum commented that the actor was suffering from severe depression prior to his death.[124] Williams's wife Susan stated that in the period before his death, he had been sober but was diagnosed with early stage Parkinson's disease which was something he was "not yet ready to share publicly".[125][126]

Death

One of several fan tributes to Williams, this at the steps of the San Francisco Pacific Heights home used for Mrs. Doubtfire

Williams died on the morning of August 11, 2014, at his home in Paradise Cay, California.[2] In the initial report released on August 12, the Marin County Sheriff's Office deputy coroner stated Williams had hanged himself with a belt and died from asphyxiation.[127][128][129] His body was cremated and his ashes scattered in San Francisco Bay on August 12.[130]

Tributes

News of Williams's death spread quickly worldwide. The entertainment world, friends, and fans responded to his sudden death through social media and other media outlets.[131] His wife, Susan Schneider, said: "I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings. I am utterly heartbroken."[132] Williams's daughter Zelda responded to her father's death by stating that the "world is forever a little darker, less colorful and less full of laughter in his absence".[133] U.S. President Barack Obama said of Williams: "He was one of a kind. He arrived in our lives as an alien but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit."[134]

On Broadway in New York City, theaters dimmed their lights for one minute in his honor. Broadway's Aladdin cast honored Williams by having the audience join them in a sing-along of "Friend Like Me", an Oscar-nominated song originally sung by Williams in the 1992 film.[135]

Fans of Williams created makeshift memorials at his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame[136] and at locations from his television and film career, such as the bench in Boston's Public Garden featured in Good Will Hunting;[137] the Pacific Heights, San Francisco, home used in Mrs. Doubtfire;[138] and at the Boulder, Colorado, home used for Mork & Mindy.[139]

The 66th Primetime Emmy Awards will be presenting a special tribute to Williams, hosted by his comedian and friend, Billy Crystal, and singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles The show airs on August 25, 2014.[140] During his career, Williams was nominated for an Emmy eight times and won twice, in 1987 and 1988. The Comic Relief specials, of which Williams was a regular host, were also previously nominated for Emmys.[141]

Legacy and influence

Williams' imprints outside TCL Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, with the message "Carpe Diem"

Although recognized as a comedian, Williams became known for taking mostly roles of substance and serious drama. Williams was considered a "national treasure" by many in the entertainment industry and by the public.[29]

His on-stage energy and improvisational skill became a model for a new generation of stand-up comedians. Many comedians valued the way he worked highly personal issues into his comedy routines, especially his honesty about drug and alcohol addiction, along with depression.[142] According to media scholar Derek A. Burrill, because of the openness with which Williams spoke about his own life, "probably the most important contribution he made to pop culture, across so many different media, was as Robin Williams the person."[142]

His unusual free-form style of comedy became so identified with him that new comedians imitated him. Jim Carrey impersonated his Mork character early in his own career.[143] Williams's high-spirited style has been credited with paving the way for the growing comedy scene which developed in San Francisco. Young comedians felt more liberated on stage by seeing Williams's spontaneous style: "one moment acting as a bright, mischievous child, then as a wise philosopher or alien from outer space."[144]

As a film actor, Williams's roles often influenced others, both in and out of the film industry. Director Chris Columbus, who directed Williams in the smash hit Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), says that watching him work "was a magical and special privilege. His performances were unlike anything any of us had ever seen, they came from some spiritual and otherworldly place."[107]

Looking over most of Williams's films, one writer was "struck by the breadth of Williams' roles", and how radically different most were, writing that "Williams helped us grow up."[67]

Filmography and recordings

Williams' star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

Williams had at least 106 acting credits to his name in films and television shows between 1977 and 2015. He was nominated for numerous awards during his acting career. Four albums of Williams's stand-up comedy, including his Grammy-winning A Night at the Met, have also been released.

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Bibliography

  • Jay David (1999). The Life and Humor of Robin Williams: A Biography. New York: Quill. ISBN 978-0-688-15245-1. 
  • Andy Dougan (1999). Robin Williams: A Biography. Thunder's Mouth Press. ISBN 978-1-56025-213-9. 
  • Stephen J. Spignesi (1997). The Robin Williams Scrapbook. Secaucus, NJ: Carol Pub. ISBN 978-0-8065-1891-6. 

Further reading

External links