I wrote an obituary for Robin Williams as an exercise for one of my courses. Williams was a particularly difficult subject for me to write about since Hollywood is still feeling his sudden passing and because I have a deep affection for his work. I think anybody, no matter the age, can point to a pop cultural touchstone of which he was a part. Here it is, reproduced below, written as though it were the day after his passing:
A Clown for All Ages: ROBIN WILLIAMS
ROBIN WILLIAMS, comedian, film/TV actor and philanthropist, died yesterday at his home in Paradise Cay, California of an apparent suicide by asphyxiation. He was 63 years old.
An actor who appeared on the small screen, silver screen and stage, Williams cultivated a career that spanned 30 years and multiple genres, mediums and generations of audiences. He was known for his frenetic style of improvisational comedy, penchant for celebrity impressions and creation of vivid, memorable characters, a brand of funny that has influenced both younger comedians like Jimmy Fallon and Jim Carrey and his contemporaries alike, including David Letterman. He was featured in over 100 films and television shows in roles that ranged from the quirky and comedic to nuanced and serious. It was Williams’s range that earned critical acclaim and industry accolades, notably four Oscar nominations and one win for his turn as an earnest psychology professor in 1997’s “Good Will Hunting.”
“I want to thank my father, up there, the man who when I said I wanted to be an actor, he said, ‘Wonderful. Just have a back-up profession like welding,’” Williams joked during his acceptance speech.
He didn’t need the welding.
Williams’s distinct style established his presence on the stand-up comedy circuit, first in San Francisco and later in Los Angeles during the 1970s and 1980s, honing his craft at Hollywood institutions like the Improv, the Roxy and the Laugh Factory, which dedicated its marquee to its alum yesterday: “Make God Laugh,” it read. Fellow up-and-comers of the era recognized Williams’s unique command of the stage. “Holy crap, there goes my chance in show business,” Letterman recalled last night on his late-night talk show of his first reaction to seeing Williams perform.
He landed his first regular network series role in “Mork and Mindy” (1978-1982). In the sitcom, Williams starred as the titular Mork, an alien sent to Earth from the planet Ork to observe human behavior, oftentimes at the exasperation of his human friend, Mindy. Williams improvised most of his lines and showcased his skills later in his break-out film role as a Vietnam War-era radio DJ in comedy “Good Morning Vietnam” (1987), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award, Golden Globe and BAFTA Award. He veered sharply away from comedy—one of many detours throughout his career—as an unorthodox English teacher at an all-boys prep school in 1989’s “Dead Poets Society,” earning a second Oscar nod and cementing lines from a Walt Whitman poem into movie quote history: “O Captain! My captain!”
He regularly returned to his stand-up comedy roots after transitioning into television and film, touring, performing at clubs and recording multiple comedy albums which would earn him four Grammy Awards. Starting in 1986, with fellow comics Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg, Williams combined comedy and philanthropy through Comic Relief USA televised specials that benefited the homeless. He continued to set tour records as recently as the early 2000s, sometimes selling out tickets in 30 minutes.
His routines touched on issues including gender, sex, life and death, and his own drug and alcohol addictions often in rapid succession and with the employment of various accents. Moving in all directions on-stage, Williams’s comedy was known for its physicality as much as its sometimes off-color and controversial jokes. In a review of one of his early routines, the New York Times noted that his “improvisational method seemed tinged with madness.”
Sometimes, the criticism came from world leaders. After referring to Australians as “English rednecks” in 2010, Williams drew the ire of then-Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd. Rudd suggested that Williams “go and spend a bit of time in Alabama before he frames comments about anyone being particularly redneck.” Williams responded on an Australian radio show: “Please let me come back to Australia without a cavity search, and if not, I’d love to go to a strip club with you in New York.”
Robin McLaurin Williams was born in Chicago on July 21, 1951, and he grew up there and in Detroit before his family settled in the Bay Area’s Marin County. He credited his quirky comedic style to a lonely childhood and was voted “Most Likely Not to Succeed” and “Funniest” by his Redwood High School classmates upon graduation in 1969.
A short stint studying political science at Claremont Men’s College followed before he dropped out to pursue acting, eventually winning a full scholarship to the Julliard School in 1973. He was one of two students admitted into an advanced program. His fellow admittee, the late actor Christopher Reeve, noted Williams’s energetic presence: “He was like an untied balloon that had been inflated and immediately released… To say that he was “on” would be a major understatement.” At the suggestion of an instructor, Williams left the program before graduating but later established a scholarship at the school, a recipient of which includes Oscar-nominated actress Jessica Chastain.
Reeve and Williams remained close friends after Williams dropped out. In 1995, when Reeve suffered a horse-riding accident that left him a quadriplegic, it was his Julliard classmate who would pay him surprise hospital visits posing as a Russian proctologist ready to perform a rectal exam, an accent for which was one of many Williams would slip into and out of with aplomb throughout his career.
His command of accents, mimicry and celebrity impersonations was showcased in numerous late-night appearances and in animated films including Disney’s “Aladdin” (1992) where he played a singing genie and in the “Happy Feet” franchise in which he voiced multiple penguins. Among his more Earth-bound roles, Williams notably balanced the screwball with sensitivity as a divorced father who morphs into a cross-dressing British housekeeper in an effort to see his children in “Mrs. Doubtfire” (1993). “Comedy,” he once said, “is acting out optimism.”
Williams battled drug and alcohol addictions and bouts of depression throughout his career, topics he did not shy away from in his routines. He attributed an early career cocaine addiction to the stresses of stand-up life and claimed to give up the substance after the death of his friend, John Belushi, and the birth of his first child, Zachary, in 1983. He would later turn to cycling as an outlet. He completed multiple stints in rehab, most recently last month.
In his performances, he approached his struggles with candor. In his 2009 special, “Weapons of Self-Destruction,” Williams observed, “Some people say, ‘Well, Robin I’m a functioning alcoholic,’ which you can be one. It’s like being a paraplegic lap dancer. You can do it, just not as well as the others really.” He made a reference to suicide in the same program: “There’s a voice that tells alcoholics we can drink. It’s the same voice you hear if you can go up to the top of a very large building, you look over the side, and it’s a little voice that goes, ‘Jump. You can fly.’ Even though your asshole is going, ‘No, no you can’t.’”
He married three times; rumors of extramarital affairs swirled around each union. His second marriage to Marsha Garces – his son Zachary’s nanny – resulted in two more children, Zelda and Cody, and culminated in a highly-publicized divorce after 18 years. He wed his third wife, graphic designer Susan Schneider, in 2011.
She mourned his loss in a statement released yesterday saying, “As he is remembered, it is our hope the focus will not be on Robin’s death, but on the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions.” Williams’s Hollywood colleagues also posted messages via social media network Twitter, including longtime friend, Billy Crystal: “No words.” Comedian Joel McHale, who co-stars with Williams in the yet-to-be-released film “Merry Friggin’ Christmas” added, “You were one of the best that ever was. You were one of my heroes.”
In 1991’s “Hook,” Williams played an adult Peter Pan – “the boy who never grows up” – who returns to Never Neverland to face down his pirate nemesis. While the film was largely panned by critics, it was perhaps a most-appropriate canvas for Williams, the forever man-boy with his rubbery face, the boy who never grew up because multiple generations – Millennials and Boomers alike – got to grow up with him. His Never Neverland has always been the screen and stage. It will continue to be: He will be featured in four films planned for release later this year and in 2015.
“You’re only given one little spark of madness,” he said. “You musn’t lose it.” It is a spark that made him a clown for all ages.
He is survived by his three children Zak, Zelda and Cody and his wife Susan.