He seemed to burst onto the scene in 1978, delighting TV viewers as an manic alien visitor. On the big screen he made audiences of all ages laugh as a cross-dressed housekeeper, a boy trapped in a board game for 26 years, and the voice of a blue-skinned genie. At the same time, just to prove he could, he showed off his dramatic chops to moviegoers as a disc jockey in Vietnam, a rock-the-boat school teacher, and an understanding therapist. He was Popeye, Peter Pan and Theodore Roosevelt, and at times he seemed to be able to play every character at once and still keep us entertained. The news Monday of the death at age 63 of stand-up comic-turned-Academy Award-winner Robin Williams was the unexpected final chapter in the too-brief life of a beloved performer, overwhelmingly talented and, it seems, all too troubled.
Born in Chicago in July of 1951, the son of a prominent Ford Motor executive and a former model, Williams gave a brief shot at studying political science in college before opting to pursue his thespian aspirations. After attending California’s College of Marin for theater, he was accepted at the famed Juilliard school in 1973 (Robin and Christopher Reeve–who would remain lifelong friends–were the only freshmen in John Houseman’s advanced program that year). He subsequently turned his energy to stand-up and street performance. Following TV appearances on The Richard Pryor Show and the short-lived mid-’70s Laugh-In revival, Robin received his big break in 1977, when an enthusiastically off-kilter audition for producer Garry Marshall won him the role of the alien Mork from Ork on an episode of Happy Days. The audience reception quickly engendered the 1978 spin-off series Mork & Mindy, and Williams displayed his inimitable gift for rapid-fire, stream-of-consciousness comedic rambling during its four-season run.
He made his starring screen debut in the title role of the two-fisted comic strip sailor man in director Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980). Williams’ most noteworthy roles of the following decade were those that allowed him to tap into his dramatic ability, such as “Terribly Sad” writer T.S. Garp in The World According to Garp (1982); a Soviet musician who defects in a Manhattan Bloomingdale’s in Moscow on the Hudson (1986); a suburban family man who wants to replay a pivotal high school football game in The Best of Times (1986); 1960s Armed Forces radio deejay Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning, Vietnam (1987); and the maverick prep school literature instructor who urges the young men in his charge to “seize the day” in Dead Poets Society (1989). The last two roles earned Williams the first of his three Best Actor Oscar nominations. During this time he served as co-host, along with Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg, for the first Comic Relief benefit shows to raise awareness and funds for the homeless, and also toured extensively to entertain American armed forces.
In the ’90s, Robin enjoyed roles that maximized his comic skills, notably the voice of the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin (1992), in a performance that was nearly all ad-libbed; as the divorced dad who masquerades as an “expert British nanny” named Mrs. Doubtfire (1993); and one half of a gay couple with partner Nathan Lane, trying to act straight before their son’s prospective in-laws, in The Birdcage (1996). Some projects may have sounded good on paper–Robin as a grown-up Peter Pan in Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991) and as a toy manufacturer in Barry Levinson’s Toys (1992)–but, even with lackluster critical reception, he gave it his all.
Williams almost seemed typecast as a child in a man’s body in Francis Ford Coppola’s Jack (1996), and he played unconventional real-life doctors in two more ’90s dramas, Awakenings (1990) and Patch Adams (1998). Some memorable supporting turns found him as a madcap Russian doctor in 1995’s Nine Months and as Osric in Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 adaptation of Hamlet. Meanwhile, the 1995 family fantasy Jumanji had him helping two youngsters stop the magical board game they were playing from turning their town into an African jungle. He picked up a third Oscar nomination for Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991), where he played a homeless man on a “quest” to find the Holy Grail, and Williams finally took home the golden statue in 1997, winning a Best Supporting Actor award for his performance as the psychologist striving to connect with genius janitor Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting. Along with his Oscar, William’s comedy work would also earn him a pair of Emmy Awards and five Grammys.
Williams continued to work in both comical and serious efforts into the new century, from dark and disturbing thrillers (2002’s Insomnia and One Hour Photo) to slapstick turns (RV and Man of the Year in 2006 and License to Wed the following year). To younger fans he was the voice of a misfit mechanoid in Robots (2005) and a penguin in Happy Feet (2006), And, after playing a fictitious U.S. president in Man of the Year, he got his first chance at portraying an actual Chief Executive–well, a statue of one that came to life at night, anyway–when he was featured as Theodore Roosevelt in the Night at the Museum comedies (a dramatic turn as Dwight D. Eisenhower came in last year’s Lee Daniel’s The Butler). In 2013 Robin returned by series TV, co-starring with Sarah Michelle Gellar in the sitcom The Crazy Ones, which was cancelled following its freshman season.
Even with the substance abuse problems that plagued him throughout his career, Robin Williams managed to assemble a remarkable and unforgettable body of work in a film and TV career that lasted just over 35 years, a career in which the ever-inventive actor continued to find a way, to borrow from his Dead Poets Society role, to rise up and “seize the day.”