Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Late Great Robin Williams

There are those actors and comedians with an incredible talent to make us happy. Their talent is such merely thinking of them can bring a smile to our faces. Their talent is such that they can cheer us up even in our darkest hours. In the end it feels as if they are part of our lives, much like a beloved cousin or uncle who never ceases to bring joy into our lives. One of those actors and comedians with such phenomenal talent was Robin Williams. Sadly, Robin Williams was found dead at his home in Marin County, California yesterday morning, 11 August 2014. The cause was apparently suicide.

Robin Williams was born on 21 July 1951 in Chicago. His early years were spent in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. His family later moved to Woodacre, California, where he attended Redwood High School. As a child he was extremely shy and quiet. He would finally overcome his shyness participating in the drama programme at Redwood High. Mr. Williams attended Claremont Men's College in Claremont, California and the College of Marin in Marin County before receiving a full scholarship at Juilliard School in New York City. He was among only twenty students accepted into the freshman class in 1973 and only one of two students who would be accepted by the legendary actor John Houseman into the Advanced Programme that year (the other was Christopher Reeve). It was John Houseman who suggested that Robin Williams pursue a career in stand up. Mr. Williams left Julliard in 1976 before he could receive a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.

Robin Williams began his career on the stand up comedy circuit. He made his film debut in the sketch comedy film Can I Do It 'Till I Need Glasses? in 1977. That same year he made his television debut in two episodes of the short lived Richard Pryor Show. He made guest appearances on the revival of Laugh-In, Eight is Enough, and America 2-Night before a historic guest shot on the sitcom Happy Days in 1978. In the episode "My Favourite Orkan", Robin Williams played Mork, an alien whom Richie Cunningham (played by Ron Howard) encounters. Robin Williams' appearance as Mork from Ork proved so successful that the character was spun off into his own show. Mork & Mindy proved to be a hit and ran from 1978 to 1982. Mr. Williams guest starred as Mork on the short lived sitcom Out of the Blue. In 1980 he received his first lead role, playing the title character in Popeye.

It was in the Eighties that Robin Williams achieved movie stardom. In 1982 he appeared as T. S. Garp, a man with a very unconventional upbringing, in the film The World According to Garp. He appeared in the films The Survivors (1983), Moscow on the Hudson (1984), The Best of Times (1986), Club Paradise (1986), and Seize the Day (1986) before his breakthrough role in Good Morning, Vietnam (1987). In the film Mr. Williams played  Adrian Cronauer, a DJ for Armed Forces Radio Service in Vietnam. Mr. Williams received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for the role. His role in Good Morning, Vietnam would be followed by another signature role, that of unorthodox English teacher John Keating in Dead Poets Society (1989). Robin Williams would be nominated for another Oscar for Best Actor for the role. Robin Williams made cameos in Portrait of a White Marriage (1988) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), and starred in the films Cadillac Man (1990) and Awakenings (1990). Robin Williams continued to appear on television, guest starring on Faerie Tale Theatre, SCTV Network, and Pryor's Place, as well as appearing in the 1987 TV special Jonathan Winters: On the Ledge.

The Nineties would see Robin Williams in yet more high profile roles. He played Parry, a homeless man on a quest for the Holy Grail, in The Fisher King (1991). For the role Robin Williams was once more nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor. He provided the voice of Genie in the highly popular Disney animated feature Aladdin (1992). In 1997 he appeared as psychologist Dr. Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Robin Williams also had notable starring roles in Hook (1991), Toys (1992), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), Being Human (1994),  Jumanji (1995), Jack (1996), Father's Day (1997), Flubber (1997), Patch Adams (1998), What Dreams May Come (1998),  Bicentennial Man (1999), and Jakob the Liar (1999). Mr. Williams also appeared in the films Dead Again (1991), Shakes the Clown (1991), Nine Months (1995), To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995),  The Secret Agent (1996), Hamlet (1996), and Deconstructing Harry (1997). On television Mr. Williams guest starred on Homicide: Life on the Street, The Larry Sanders Show, Friends, and LA Doctors.

The Naughts saw Robin Williams play roles that were dramatically different from most of those he had played before. He played an emotionally unstable photo technician in One Hour Photo (2004) and a murderer in Insomnia (2002). Among his most popular roles during the decade was that of Teddy Roosevelt in Night at the Museum (2006) and its sequel Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009). Mr. Williams also appeared in the films Death to Smoochy (2002), The Final Cut (2004), House of D (2004), Noel (2004), The Big White (2005), The Night Listener (2006), RV (2006), Man of the Year (2006), Licence to Wed (2007), August Rush (2007), Shrink (2009), World's Greatest Dad (2009), and Old Dogs (2009). He provided voices for the voice of Dr. Know in A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), as well as voices in the animated features Robots (2005), Everyone's Hero (2006), and Happy Feet (2006). On television he guest starred on Life with Bonnie and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

In the Teens Robin Williams returned to television. This past season he played Simon Roberts on the sitcom The Crazy Ones. He also guest starred on Wilfred and Louie. He appeared in the films The Big Wedding (2013), The Butler (2013), The Face of Love (2013), Robin Williams in Multiple Exposures (2013), Boulevard (2014), and The Angriest Man in Brooklyn (2014) . He provided voices for Happy Feet Two (2011). Later this year he will appear in Merry Friggin' Christmas and Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb. Next year his voice will be heard in Absolutely Anything (2015).

There can be little doubt that Robin Williams was a singular talent. He was very skilled at improvisation, so much so that he could create three dimensional characters in a matter of seconds. What is more he had an incredible talent for mimicry. He could change his voice as easily as most people change their clothes. Perhaps the only other comedian similar to Robin Williams was Jonathan Winters, whom Mr. Williams credited as an influence and who would also become a collaborator and friend. Like Jonathan Winters, Robin Williams could also be uproariously funny. Historically other comedians relied on teams of gag writers to provide them with material. Robin Williams could come up with material simply off the top of his head.

Beyond Robin Williams' talent as a comedian, however, there was also an incredible talent as an actor. As manic as his comedy routines could be, he was quite capable of delivering understated, subtle performances as a dramatic actor. Indeed, some of his performances have passed into pop culture. Both the irreverent DJ Adrian Cronauer from Good Morning, Vietnam and unorthodox English teacher John Keating from Dead Poets Society are instantly recognisable to most of the movie viewing audience. Mr. Williams' best known roles tended to be both eccentric and inspiring (Cronauer and Keating have a good deal in common), but he also had a very wide range as an actor. Although it was not often noted, he was very good at playing villains. He was incredible as sociopathic crime writer Walter Finch in Insomnia. Mr. Williams was also fantastic as a crazed engineer intent on teaching society a lesson in the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode "Authority". The wide array of characters Robin Williams played was incredible, from Mork from Ork to Teddy Roosevelt. What is more, he was very prolific.

What makes Robin Williams' death all the more sadder is that we have not only lost a talented actor and comedian, but apparently a very good man as well. From all reports Mr. Williams was one of the kindest, most thoughtful, most humble men one could hope to meet. Director Terry Gilliam told how, during a particularly long night spent shooting The Fisher King, Robin Williams launched into a comedy routine. Mr. Williams had a joke or a reference for every single member of the crew. Conan O'Brien told how, when he was he was going through a rough period about five years ago, Robin Williams bought him a bicycle, even though the two did not know each other that well. When Mrs. Doubtfire co-star Lisa Jakub's school expelled her for taking time off to shoot the movie, Robin Williams wrote the school a letter, telling them, "...a student of her calibre and talent should be encouraged to go out in the world and learn through her work."  On the set of Old Dogs, when the strap of a golf bag carried by extra Susan Jeffer broke (she was playing golf in the film), it was Robin Williams who helped her carry the bag. Robin Williams was known to visit sick children often, even chartering a private jet to visit a young girl who was dying from cancer. Although he seemed unable to make himself happy (he suffered from depression most of his life), Robin Williams' primary desire in life seemed to be to make others happy.

As might be expected of a man known for his kindness, Robin Williams was active in charity work. He established the Robin Williams Scholarship at the Julliard School for drama students. He served on the board of the Christopher Reeve Foundation and supported St. Jude's Children's Hospital. With his former wife Marsha he founded the Windfall Foundation, an organisation that supports charities devoted to the arts, education, the environment, and health. As part of the USO Robin Willaims regularly performed for the troops. When Christchurch, New Zealand was struck by an earthquake in 2010 he donated money to help with rebuilding.

With the passing of Robin Williams it would seem we have not simply lost a phenomenally talented actor and comedian, but a man who truly cared about people as well. Indeed, tales of Robin Williams' kindness to fellow performers and ordinary people may well outnumber memories of his many performances in articles on his death. As rare as a talents of Robin Williams' calibre are, it seems that he was something rarer still. A truly kind and caring gentleman.

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