Actor, comedian and Academy Award winner Robin Williams has passed at the age of 63, according to Marin County Police in Northern California. They responded to a 911 call at around Noon PST yesterday, after which Williams was discovered in his own home and pronounced dead on the scene.
Depending on what age you are, you’ll remember a different Robin Williams.
If you remember the late 70s, you’ll know him as the naive and loveable alien in the sitcom Mork and Mindy. Originally spun off from Happy Days, Mork become something of a pop culture sensation; his ‘nanoo nanoo’ greeting making its way onto school playgrounds everywhere.
If you’re a child of the 90s, he’ll always be the vocally acrobatic genie in Disney’s Aladdin. The writers and producers would allow him to improvise in the recording booth, resulting in associative riffing and a slew of celebrity impressions making their way into a cartoon set in the middle ages!
Of course, there were those who knew him as one of the most brilliant and high-energy live comics of all time. His ability to riff entire hour-long routines delighted audiences while occasionally incurring the ire of his fellow stand-ups. With his mind racing a mile-a-minute on stage, Williams developed a reputation for ‘lifting’ other comedians’ material.
While most of his peers acknowledge the fact he probably stole unconsciously, the story goes that in San Francisco comedy clubs there would be two lights backstage to alert the comics. One was for if a TV exec were in the audience; and the other was a warning to lock up your new material: Robin Williams was in the house.
There is that old cliche about the tears of a clown – that all comedians just want to be taken seriously. Robin Williams certainly had a gentler, more melancholy side. But he also had the talent to do something about it.
Starting from his early film roles, he was always able to show a vulnerable human side. Playing title character in Robert Altman’s 1980 Popeye, Williams transformed a cartoon character into a lonely lovesick sailor. As the downtrodden lead in The World According to Garp, he announced himself as an affecting and empathetic presence.
However, it wasn’t until Good Morning Vietnam that Williams was able to show what he could do on the big screen. As an off-the-wall armed forces DJ who is slowly exposed to the reality of war, his improv skills and knack for making people actually care turned a mid-budget war comedy into a giant hit.
We could easily go on listing all his dramatic roles: from the inspiring English teacher of Dead Poets Society and the creepy author in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, to Matt Damon’s psychiatrist in Good Will Hunting (a role for which he won Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars). He was a reliable and surprisingly rangy actor.
Sure, there were a few mis-fires along the way. Mawkish films like Jack, Patch Adams and Bicentennial Man were in danger of turning Williams into a punchline. But whether or not you like any particular movie, Williams has always done what was asked of him as an actor.
If you regularly read the gossip papers, you may have read about Williams’ battle with depression and alcoholism – not that there was ever that much press surrounding it. For a headline actor, he was a private man: choosing to live in Northern California rather than down in Beverley Hills with all the other mega-stars. And yet that didn’t stop him from frankly talking about his substance abuse during his stand-up.
After a number of stints of counselling, rehab, and sobriety over the past decade, it would seem that Robin Williams has lost his final battle. The world is left considerably worse without him.
Robin Williams, 1951-2014
Not to come off ghoulishly commercial, but if you’re looking to celebrate the life of Robin Williams, there are few better ways than to revisit his finest on-screen moments. Looking back now, a lot of these movies cut pretty close to the bone.
Good Morning Vietnam (1987)
Dead Poets Society (1989)
The Fisher King (1991)
Good Will Hunting (1998)
Louie – Season 3 - Episode 6: Barney/Never (2012)