An iconic comedian, prestigious actor and household name, Robin Williams united adults and children alike with his infectious personality and undeniable talent. From stand-up and comic television roles to treading the boards and winning an Oscar, Robin Williams excelled in creating his own personal brand of comedy whilst also being able to evoke the spectrum of human suffering. We get to grips with the range and versatility of one of the world’s best-loved performers.
For Robin Williams, acting was seemingly instinctive. From a young age, he would reputedly try and gain his mother’s attention by making her laugh, later crediting her as an important early influence on the development of his humor.
The family moved from Illinois to California when Williams was 16, by which point he was already deeply in love with performance having appeared in many high-school productions. After a brief period spent studying Political Science at Claremont Men’s College, California, Williams decided to pursue acting at the College of Marin, where he truly came into his own, often improvising his performances and succeeding in entertaining his whole class.
His incredible comic timing and intuitive knack for performance were what gained Williams a full scholarship to the revered Juilliard School in New York. Williams was considered an exemplary student and comic ‘genius’ amongst his friends and educators, yet after just one year, he prematurely concluded his study at Julliard, claiming that there was nothing more they could offer him. Returning to Marin, Williams threw himself into the pursuit of a stand-up comedy career.
Following a brief period spent bartending and establishing himself in the cut-throat comedy world, Williams made the decision to relocate to LA to perform in various comedy clubs. It was whilst in LA that he shot to fame with his performance on an improvisation show for HBO. The Off the Wall special, performed live at the Roxy in 1978, showcased Williams’ incredible ability to conjure pithy remarks and comic asides on cue, filling the room with an energy that was to later become characteristic of his extraordinary talent for entertaining.
His own kinetic energy on stage saw him leap and bound both physically and rhetorically between witty one-liners, rapid-fire rapport and spot on impersonations. Williams’ show, touching on pertinent and ever-topical themes as well as featuring contemporary impressions and musical interludes, offered a truly unique and hilarious social commentary. Williams continued to perform improvisation throughout his career, particularly fine examples being An Evening With Robin Williams in 1982, Robin Williams: At The Met in 1986 and Robin Williams Live on Broadway in 2000. All of these iconic performances featured Robin’s signature style and helped him to routinely flex his comedy muscles. It is somewhat fitting that many of his legendary performances were held in the world’s greatest concert halls, as Williams conducted the laughter of his audiences with both measured skill and aplomb.
Making a name for himself on the comedy circuit and gaining an impressive reputation for his flawless timing and blossoming fan-base, Williams was soon granted the role that was to mark a turning point in his career – Mork the alien in Mork and Mindy (1978-82). In the role of Mork, Williams added more than just a flavor of flamboyance, bringing the full force of his outlandish, explosive comic personality to the small screen. Standing on his head, conversing with plants and fighting with his personified emotions – Williams made Mork the most absurd and entertaining character on television at the time. The show garnered an unbelievable sixty million viewers weekly, propelling Williams into stardom. Once the show ended in 1982, Williams shifted his focus to pursue a full time career in film.
Having already starred as the titular character in Popeye (1980), Robin’s transition into film was seamless and natural. He stood out not only as a stand-up comedian but also as a relatable, buoyant character unlike any of his contemporaries. It was his role in Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) that truly made Williams the cinematic sensation he is now considered to be. The character of Adrian Cronauer allowed for Williams to explore the complexities of a deep and varied character whilst incorporating vital elements of his own improvised comedy skill. The performance gained him a Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture and an American Comedy Award for Funniest Actor in a Motion Picture.
Williams went on to achieve even greater widespread international acclaim in Good Will Hunting (1997). Expertly treading the line between innate wisdom and personal turmoil, Williams’ portrayal of therapist Dr. Sean Maguire in Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s acclaimed modern classic, was considered so multifaceted and deeply moving that it won him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor at the 70th Academy Awards. The following year, he appeared as the titular doctor in the semi-biographical comedy drama Patch Adams (1998), building upon his talent for inspirational acting evident in The Dead Poets Society (1989). In this fitting role, Williams embodied a medical professional who eased the pain and trauma of patients through the application of laughter.
Ever-loyal to his first love, Williams continued throughout his life to intersperse his serious roles with those of a more comic nature. He appeared in films such as The World According to Garp (1982) and as the titular character in Jack (1996), depicting heart-warming characters that won over large audiences with their gentle, timeless humor and unique vulnerability. Indeed, it was this ability to portray downtrodden or flawed individuals with innately good hearts that endeared him to audiences worldwide. One may think particularly of Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) and Jumanji (1995), through which Williams secured his position as the most empathetic comedian in circulation.
Uniquely, Williams also managed to blend this newly honed, sophisticated style with his stand-up, improvisatory roots to lend a level of eccentricity to the Genie in Aladdin (1992). During recordings, Williams was permitted to riff for hours on end, leaving the production team with over 24 hours of material to apply to this Disney classic. Williams demonstrated a similar ability to delight audiences young and old in a single scene as Peter Pan in Hook (1991), whereby he famously puts Rufio back in his place with a pithy monologue of adolescent insults, reclaiming his throne as the king of The Lost Boys.
From the eccentric and the wild to the vulnerable and the absurd, Williams thoroughly explored the darker side of humor, resulting in a holistic approach to his performances. In the hyperactive black comedy Death to Smoochy (2002), he plays a foul-mouthed children’s entertainer dressed in a pink rhino costume. Williams demonstrated depth of character in everything he approached, conveying a gritty reality beneath the acerbic humor and fragile charm. This is the case in his role as single father, English teacher and aspiring author Lance Clayton in The World’s Greatest Dad (2009). Considered by Indiewire to be one of Williams’ greatest roles, he brilliantly presents tough topics ranging from suicide to rejection, transforming them into darkly entertaining pieces of comedy.
His ability to locate the shard of humor in even the darkest of topics is thought to be largely a result of his own ongoing struggles with personal demons. Despite remaining admirably quiet on the subject of his personal life, Williams did refer to his struggle with drug and alcohol abuse during various talk show appearances, turning personally traumatic periods of his life into amusing anecdotes.
Following his death in 2014, Robin Williams left behind an immense legacy of classic comedy and poignant cinema that remains timeless, original and unmatched. The moments of genuine laughter, improvisatory brilliance and the baring of his soul on screen still continue to captivate audiences and critics alike. Despite the unfortunate circumstances of his death, it is impossible to marry the public image of Williams to a sense of grief or sorrow. Given his incredible commitment to pursuing comedy and the dedication that led to such a tremendous body of work, it seems fitting to remember Williams as a proponent of fun, an individual whose own vulnerability encouraged a widespread reflection on what it means to be human.