Born in Chicago in 1951, Robin Williams began diving headlong into comedy at an early age as he used laughter to divert those who bullied him as a chubby child. After his family relocated to California, he took improvisation lessons which hooked him on acting. After studying at the College of Marin, he won a scholarship to the Juilliard School in New York City, where he befriended classmates like Christopher Reeve.
Williams’ stand-up act was developed in the clubs of Los Angeles and San Francisco. He credits Improv training with opening his mind to his true comedic voice. Considered one of the best improvisational actors of all time by his peers, Williams was recently described by Liam Lacey as having a “warp-speed” brand of humor, practically “too fast to be human.”
His first television success, Mork and Mindy, began in 1978, after producer Garry Marshall recognized Williams’ genius in the guest role he did on Happy Days the year before, as a visiting alien. Mork and Mindy was an instant hit, going on to garner six Golden Globe awards for Williams, who played an alien from Planet Ork opposite down-to-earth Pam Dauber as Mindy.
Williams’ movie debut in 1981, as Popeye the sailor, garnered enough attention for him to go on to such diverse movie roles as Good Morning Vietnam and Dead Poets Society. However, the Eighties was a decade of addiction for the actor, doing cocaine alongside Jim Belushi and suffering from alcoholism. Williams stated publicly that Belushi’s death by overdose pushed him to evaluate his drug and alcohol lifestyle and get sober.
Although there was a gap in his movie roles through the mid-80s, Williams’ never stopped performing in the beloved comedy clubs where he got his start. In 1987, after suffering through several years of personal upheaval and movie flops, Williams’ scored an Academy Award nomination for his role in Good Morning Vietnam. Although he did not win the award that year, he went on to receive three more Academy Award noms for The Fisher King, Dead Poets Society and finally, Good Will Hunting in 1997, which he won. He took home the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that year for his role as the psychologist who treated Matt Damon’s character Will in the movie.
Many consider the animated film Aladdin to be the best showcase of Williams’ ability to improvise. Disney’s 1992 film earned more than $200 million at the box office and the actor is reputed to have ad-libbed his way through his role of the Genie who springs from the lamp to grant the title character three wishes. He returned to animated film with a role in Happy Feet Two.
Williams was found in his home north of San Francisco on Monday, his death listed as an alleged “suicide by asphyxiation.” Both Hollywood and the world have taken to social media to pour out their grief over a life cut so short.
Although Robin Williams will be remembered for his roles on television and the big screen, it is the comedy circuit where he got his start that “will never be able to replace him.” Live Nation Comedy’s president, Geof Wills, declared his community “heart-broken,” describing Williams’ performances as “filled with humanity and heart.” Ellen Degeneres summed it up in a tweet: “He gave so much to so many people.”
By Jenny Hansen