He was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1951 and was a quiet and shy churchgoer in his school days, although friends will attest that even back then he was funny.
In his college days, he abandoned political science to pursue acting, and his talent was evident from the beginning when he would improvise on stage and leave his castmates in hysterics.
In the seventies he got a full scholarship to Julliard in New York City and was trained as a serious actor, although most of his acting teachers were baffled by his free style. He only lasted three years, not surprisingly. The conservative and classical school wasn’t a natural fit and it seemed to hold him back more than teach him anything, although Williams does not regret enrolling.
Stand-up comedy was the perfect thing for Williams’ skills. He could improvise quickly and his manic behavior got huge laughs. TV producers took note and brought him to Hollywood where he became a huge star playing Mork the alien, first on Happy Days and then on the Happy Days spin-off Mork & Mindy (1978–82). Mork was funnier than most TV characters in the seventies thanks to Williams’ signature improvisation.
In the seventies and eighties, he became a major player in Hollywood, appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone, regularly cracking up Johnny Carson, filming three different HBO comedy specials and co-hosting the Oscars with Alan Alda and Jane Fonda in 1986.
He also had memorable roles, many of which were not comedic, throughout his film career. Barry Levinson’s Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) was the first film to combine his manic improvisation with dramatic acting, and it earned Williams his first Oscar nomination.
His film career is full of hits and misses. Williams had said that he’s proud of all of his films but admitted that he could never be a director because he was a poor judge of material based on script alone. The highlights for me include Dead Poets Society (1989), The Fisher King (1991), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), Good Will Hunting (1998), and World‘s Greatest Dad (2009), but among his most famous roles are the ones in films that are popular but not a favorite of mine, like Hook (1991), Jumanji (1995), and Night at the Museum (2006).
The voice work he did in Disney’s Aladdin (1992) is possibly his most famous work. Without a doubt, it was the main reason for the film’s popularity and it began a tradition in American animation of using celebrity voices to sell films. Because Williams was such a gifted impressionist, the cosmic Genie transformed into celebrities with the same rapid-fire speed, which led to memorable appearances from Ed Sullivan, Jack Nicholson, Groucho Marx, Rodney Dangerfield, William F. Buckley and others. He reprised that role in Aladdin and the King of Thieves (1996) to hilarious results once again.
In 1986, Williams teamed up with Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal to found Comic Relief USA, a non-profit charity organization with a goal to raise funds to help those in need. As a result, nearly $50 million in health care services have been provided to homeless people in the U.S.
Other philanthropic endeavors include working with Children’s Promise, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, donating profits from his stand-up comedy to New Zealand after the 2010 Canterbury earthquake, performing for troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even founding his own charity, Windfall Foundation to help raise money for other charities.
Much of the joy he brought to people in his comedy and in his charities hid the fact that Williams himself suffered from many personal problems. Drugs were a common pastime for many celebrities in the seventies and eighties and he was able to quit that habit (perhaps in part because of the tragic effect it had on his friend John Belushi) but alcohol addiction and depression were consistent issues throughout his life, and he discussed these problems openly in his stand-up comedy.
In 2014, Williams died of suicide at the age of 63 at his home in Paradise Cay, California. Neither drugs nor alcohol were involved. It was due to a disease of the mind called Lewy body dimentia, incorrectly diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease before he died.
I’ve endured many celebrity deaths but Robin Williams hit me the hardest. Who else was as gifted and as giving as Robin Williams? He dominated both drama and comedy equally in his career and remained one of the nicest human beings on the planet, but all the success in the world can’t heal you if you still suffer on the inside. Totally unfair! I’ll miss him for the rest of my life!
Since this blog is about Robin Williams, I’ll end on a humorous note. My brother is a fan of Williams and he owned a DVD of his 2002 one-man show Robin Williams: Live on Broadway. My sister wanted to watch it too but my brother said that it is so raunchy that he predicted she wouldn’t make it through the first minute. It was the shortest DVD loan ever.