It's not often that the passing of someone of whom I have never met affects me or my life. This includes celebrity's. The thing is, Robin Williams wasn't just any celebrity. He was Robin Williams.
Like millions of others, the news of his death hit me hard. More than I could have ever anticipated. While I never met Robin in real life, I guess I felt like I knew him because of his films and their effect on me. He made me laugh, he made me cry, he made me think. He made me wonder too.
More than that, he made me feel normal. Watching him doing his routines or playing a character, or especially watching one of his interviews, my friends would say this is how I act sometimes. It made me feel like an outcast when they would say this, but then it made me feel normal to see Robin do it. At least, if anything, it made me feel unique. But Robin was doing to entertain people. Why was I acting like a fool for? Maybe for the same reason only, I wasn't getting paid for it. In the end, I guess he and I had a lot more in common than I thought. He was suffering inside just as I was. Being bi-polar and suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts, I too lived in a dark world just as he did. I'm still living in it and fighting for every ray of light I can muster into my world. I suppose Robin simply had enough. I worry too of when I might wake up one day and realize, I have had enough of the pain too? My family and friends worry about that as well.
Robin McLaurin Williams was born at St. Luke's Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, on July 21, 1951. His mother, Laurie McLaurin (c. 1923 – September 4, 2001), was a former model from Jackson, Mississippi; her great-grandfather was Mississippi senator and governor Anselm J. McLaurin. Williams's father, Robert Fitzgerald Williams (September 10, 1906 – October 18, 1987) was a senior executive in Ford Motor Company's Lincoln-Mercury Division. Williams had two half-brothers: Robert Todd Williams (June 14, 1938 – August 14, 2007) and McLaurin Smith (born 1947). He had English, Welsh, Irish, Scottish, German, and French ancestry. While his mother was a practitioner of Christian Science, Williams was raised as an Episcopalian and later authored the comedic list, "Top Ten Reasons to be an Episcopalian." During a TV interview on Inside the Actors Studio in 2001, he credited his mother as being an important early influence for his sense of humor, noting also that he tried to make her laugh to gain attention.
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), 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. His friends recall him as being very funny. In late 1963, when Williams was twelve, his father was transferred to Detroit. They lived in a 40-room farmhouse on 20 acres in suburban Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where he was a student at the private Detroit Country Day School. He excelled in school, where he was on the school's soccer team and wrestling team, and became class president.
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. 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. Williams was known to improvise during his time in Marin's drama program, putting cast members in hysterics. Dunn called his wife after one late rehearsal to tell her that Williams "was going to be something special."
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.
After his family moved to Marin County, Williams began his career doing stand-up comedy shows in the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid-1970s. His first performance took place at the Holy City Zoo, a comedy club in San Francisco, where he worked his way up from tending bar to getting on stage. 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. 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."
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. Williams also performed a show at the LA Improv that same year for Home Box Office. 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.
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. He also liked Jay Leno for his quickness in ad-libbing comedy routines, and Sid Caesar, whose acts he felt were "precious."
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.
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.
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.
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. Williams impressed the producer with his quirky sense of humor when he sat on his head when asked to take a seat for the audition. 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." 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."
Mork became an extremely popular character, featured on posters, coloring books, lunchboxes, and other merchandise. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
Williams was also a regular guest on various talk shows, including The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson 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."
Williams's 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.
Williams and Billy Crystal were in an unscripted cameo at the beginning of an episode of the third season of Friends. His many TV appearances included an episode of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and he 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. In May 2013, CBS started a new series, The Crazy Ones, starring Williams, but the show was canceled after one season.
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. 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". Williams continued with other smaller roles in less successful films, such as The Survivors (1983) and Club Paradise (1986), though he felt these roles did not help advance his film career.
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. 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. "We just let the cameras roll," said producer Mark Johnson, and Williams "managed to create something new for every single take."
Many of his later roles were in comedies tinged with pathos. 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), 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)). In 1991, he played an adult Peter Pan in the movie Hook, although he said he would have to lose twenty-five pounds.
Other acclaimed dramatic films include Moscow on the Hudson (1984), Awakenings (1990), and What Dreams May Come (1998). 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. 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. The last Williams movie released during his lifetime was The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, a film addressing the value of life. In it, Williams played Henry Altmann, a terminally ill man who reassesses his life and works to redeem himself.
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. Through approximately 30 hours of tape, 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. 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." 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.
Williams appeared opposite Steve Martin at Lincoln Center in an Off-Broadway production of Waiting for Godot in 1988. 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. He headlined his own one-man show, Robin Williams: Live on Broadway, that played at The Broadway Theatre in July 2002.
Williams married his first wife, Valerie Velardi in June 1978 following a live-in relationship with comedienne Elayne Boosler. Velardi and Williams met in 1976 while he was working as a bartender at a tavern in San Francisco. 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. Williams and Velardi divorced in 1988.
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. Their divorce was finalized in 2010. Williams married his third wife, graphic designer Susan Schneider, on October 23, 2011, in St. Helena, California. Their residence was Williams's house in Sea Cliff in San Francisco, California.
Williams and Christopher Reeve became friends while both were studying at Juilliard; the two remained close friends until Reeve's death in 2004. Prior to his death, Reeve stated that hospital visits from Williams were the first time he had laughed since the horse-riding accident that left him a quadriplegic. When Reeve's medical insurance ran out, Williams paid many of his bills. Following the 2006 death of Reeve's widow, Dana, Williams provided practical and financial support for the couple's 14-year-old son.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Williams had an addiction to cocaine. Williams was a casual friend of comedian John Belushi, 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." Williams turned to exercise and cycling to help alleviate his depression shortly after Belushi's death, according to bicycle shop owner Tony Tom, Williams stated, "cycling saved my life".
Williams started drinking alcohol again in 2003, while working on a film in Alaska. In 2006 he checked himself in to a substance-abuse rehabilitation center in Newberg, Oregon, saying he was an alcoholic.
Williams was hospitalized in March 2009 due to heart problems. He postponed his one-man tour for surgery to replace his aortic valve. The surgery was completed on March 13, 2009, at the Cleveland Clinic.
In mid-2014, Williams admitted himself into the Hazelden Foundation Addiction Treatment Center in Lindstrom, Minnesota, for treatment related to his alcoholism.
Williams's publicist Mara Buxbaum commented that the actor was suffering from severe depression prior to his death. 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".
Williams died on the morning of August 11, 2014, at his home in Paradise Cay, California. 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. His body was cremated and his ashes scattered in San Francisco Bay on August 12.
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. 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." 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". 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."
Broadway theaters in New York 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. Fans of Williams created makeshift memorials at his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and at locations from his television and film career, such as the bench in Boston's Public Garden featured in Good Will Hunting; the Pacific Heights, San Francisco, home used in Mrs. Doubtfire; and the Boulder, Colorado, home used for Mork & Mindy. It was also reported that a book biography of Williams' life was in the works, to be written by New York Times writer, David Itzkoff.
On television, during the 66th Primetime Emmy Awards on August 25, 2014, comedian Billy Crystal presented a tribute to Williams, referring to him as "the brightest star in our comedy galaxy". On September 9, 2014, PBS aired a one-hour special devoted to Williams's career, and on Sept. 27, 2014, dozens of leading stars and celebrities held a tribute in San Francisco to celebrate his life and career.
Although Williams was first recognized as a stand-up comedian and television star, he later became known for acting in film roles of substance and serious drama. Williams was considered a "national treasure" by many in the entertainment industry and by the public.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. 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."
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. 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." According to Judd Apatow, Williams' rapid-fire improvisational style was an inspiration as well as an influence for other comedians, however, his talent was unique enough that no one else tried to copy it.
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 1993 film Mrs. Doubtfire, 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."
Looking over most of Williams's films, Alyssa Rosenberg at The Washington Post was "struck by the breadth of Williams' roles", and how radically different most were, writing that "Williams helped us grow up.
Indeed, this is why I think I mourn for him like I do .... he helped me to grow up.
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