Robin McLaurin Williams (July 21, 1951 – August 11, 2014) was an American actor and comedian. Known for his improvisational skills and the wide variety of characters he created on the spur of the moment and portrayed on film, in dramas and comedies alike, he is regarded as one of the best comedians of all time. Williams began performing stand-up comedy in San Francisco and Los Angeles during the mid-1970s, and rose to fame playing the alien Mork in the ABC sitcom Mork & Mindy (1978–1982).
Robin McLaurin Williams was born at St. Luke's Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, on July 21, 1951. His father, Robert Fitzgerald Williams, was a senior executive in Ford's Lincoln-Mercury Division. His mother, Laurie McLaurin, was a former model from Jackson, Mississippi, whose great-grandfather was Mississippi senator and governor Anselm J. McLaurin, a Democrat. Williams had two elder half-brothers: paternal half-brother Robert (also known as Todd) and maternal half-brother McLaurin. While his mother was a practitioner of Christian Science, Williams was raised in his father's Episcopal faith. During a television interview on Inside the Actors Studio in 2001, Williams credited his mother as an important early influence on his humor, and he tried to make her laugh to gain attention.
Williams attended public elementary school in Lake Forest at Gorton Elementary School and middle school at Deer Path Junior High School. He described himself as a quiet child who did not overcome his shyness until he became involved with his high school drama department. His friends recall him as very funny. In late 1963, when Williams was 12, his father was transferred to Detroit. The family lived in a 40-room farmhouse on 20 acres in suburban Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where he was a student at the private Detroit Country Day School. He excelled in school, where he was on the school's wrestling team and was elected class president.
His first major break came from his starring role in director Barry Levinson's Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), which earned Williams a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor. The film is set in 1965 during the Vietnam War, with Williams playing the role of Adrian Cronauer, a radio shock jock who keeps the troops entertained with comedy and sarcasm. Williams was allowed to play the role without a script, improvising most of his lines. Over the microphone, he created voice impressions of people, including Walter Cronkite, Gomer Pyle, Elvis Presley, Mr. Ed, and Richard Nixon. "We just let the cameras roll", said producer Mark Johnson, and Williams "managed to create something new for every single take".
As both his parents worked, Williams was partially raised by the family's maid, who was his main companion. When he was 16, his father took early retirement and the family moved to Tiburon, California. Following their move, Williams attended Redwood High School in nearby Larkspur. At the time of his graduation in 1969, he was voted "Most Likely Not to Succeed" and "Funniest" by his classmates. After high school graduation, Williams enrolled at Claremont Men's College in Claremont, California, to study political science; he dropped out to pursue acting. Williams studied theatre for three years at the College of Marin, a community college in Kentfield, California. According to College of Marin's drama professor James Dunn, the depth of the young actor's talent became evident when he was cast in the musical Oliver! as Fagin. Williams often improvised during his time in the drama program, leaving cast members in hysterics. Dunn called his wife after one late rehearsal to tell her Williams "was going to be something special".
In 1973, Williams attained a full scholarship to the Juilliard School (Group 6, 1973–1976) in New York City. He was one of 20 students accepted into the freshman class, and he and Christopher Reeve were the only two accepted by John Houseman into the Advanced Program at the school that year. William Hurt and Mandy Patinkin were also classmates. According to biographer Jean Dorsinville, Franklyn Seales and Williams were roommates at Juilliard. Reeve remembered his first impression of Williams when they were new students at Juilliard: "He wore tie-dyed shirts with tracksuit bottoms and talked a mile a minute. I'd never seen so much energy contained in one person. He was like an untied balloon that had been inflated and immediately released. I watched in awe as he virtually caromed off the walls of the classrooms and hallways. To say that he was 'on' would be a major understatement."
In New York City, Williams was part of the West Side YMCA runners running team and showed promising results with 34:21 minutes at a 10K run in Central Park in 1975.
During the summers of 1974, 1975, and 1976, Williams worked as a busboy at The Trident in Sausalito, California. He left Juilliard during his junior year in 1976 at the suggestion of Houseman, who said there was nothing more Juilliard could teach him. Gerald Freedman, another of his teachers at Juilliard, said Williams was a "genius" and that the school's conservative and classical style of training did not suit him; no one was surprised that he left.
Williams began performing stand-up comedy in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1976. He gave his first performance at the Holy City Zoo, a comedy club in San Francisco, where he worked his way up from tending bar. In the 1960s, San Francisco was a center for a rock music renaissance, hippies, drugs, and a sexual revolution, and in the late 1970s, Williams helped lead its "comedy renaissance", writes critic Gerald Nachman. Williams says he found out about "drugs and happiness" during that period, adding that he saw "the best brains of my time turned to mud".
Williams married his first wife, Valerie Velardi, in June 1978, following a live-in relationship with comedian Elayne Boosler. Velardi and Williams met in 1976 while he was working as a bartender at a tavern in San Francisco. Their son Zachary Pym "Zak" Williams was born in 1983. Velardi and Williams were divorced in 1988.
Williams moved to Los Angeles and continued performing stand-up at clubs including The Comedy Store. There, in 1977, he was seen by TV producer George Schlatter, who asked him to appear on a revival of his show Laugh-In. The show aired in late 1977 and was his debut TV appearance. That year, Williams also performed a show at the L.A. Improv for Home Box Office. While the Laugh-In revival failed, it led Williams into his television career; he continued performing stand-up at comedy clubs such as the Roxy to help keep his improvisational skills sharp. In England, Williams notably performed at The Fighting Cocks.
Mork became popular, featured on posters, coloring books, lunch-boxes, and other merchandise. Mork & Mindy was such a success in its first season that Williams appeared on the March 12, 1979, cover of Time magazine. The cover photo, taken by Michael Dressler in 1979, is said to have "[captured] his different sides: the funnyman mugging for the camera, and a sweet, more thoughtful pose that appears on a small TV he holds in his hands" according to Mary Forgione of the Los Angeles Times. This photo was installed in the National Portrait Gallery in the Smithsonian Institution shortly after his death to allow visitors to pay their respects. Williams also appeared on the cover of the August 23, 1979, issue of Rolling Stone, photographed by Richard Avedon.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Williams had an addiction to cocaine. He was a casual friend of John Belushi, and the Saturday Night Live comic's death in 1982 from a drug overdose, which happened the morning after the two had partied together, along with the birth of his own son Zak, prompted him to quit drugs and alcohol: "Was it a wake-up call? Oh yeah, on a huge level. The grand jury helped, too." Williams later said of Belushi's death, "It sobered the shit out of me." Williams turned to exercise and cycling to help alleviate his depression shortly after Belushi's death; according to bicycle shop owner Tony Tom, Williams said, "cycling saved my life."
In 1986, Williams teamed up with Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal to found Comic Relief USA. This annual HBO television benefit devoted to the homeless raised $80 million as of 2014 . Bob Zmuda, creator of Comic Relief, explains that Williams felt blessed because he came from a wealthy home, but wanted to do something to help those less fortunate. Williams made benefit appearances to support literacy and women's rights, along with appearing at benefits for veterans. He was a regular on the USO circuit, where he traveled to 13 countries and performed to approximately 90,000 troops. After his death, the USO thanked him "for all he did for the men and women of our armed forces".
Starting in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, Williams began to reach a wider audience with his stand-up comedy, including three HBO comedy specials, Off the Wall (1978), An Evening with Robin Williams (1983), and A Night at the Met (1986). In 1986, Williams co-hosted the 58th Academy Awards. Williams was also a regular guest on various talk shows, including The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Late Night with David Letterman, on which he appeared 50 times.
While it was reported that Williams began an affair with Zachary's nanny Marsha Garces in 1986, Velardi stated in the 2018 documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind that the relationship with Garces began after the two had separated. On April 30, 1989, Williams married Garces, who was six months pregnant with his child. They had two children, Zelda Rae Williams (born 1989) and Cody Alan Williams (born 1991). In March 2008, Garces filed for divorce from Williams, citing irreconcilable differences. Their divorce was finalized in 2010.
Williams appeared opposite Steve Martin at Lincoln Center in an off-Broadway production of Waiting for Godot in 1988. He headlined his own one-man show, Robin Williams: Live on Broadway, which played at the Broadway theatre in July 2002. He made his Broadway acting debut in Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on March 31, 2011.
Many of his subsequent roles were in comedies tinged with pathos. Looking over most of his filmography, one writer was "struck by the breadth" and radical diversity of most roles Williams portrayed. In 1989, Williams played a private-school English teacher in Dead Poets Society, which included a final, emotional scene that some critics said "inspired a generation" and became a part of pop culture. Similarly, his performance as a therapist in Good Will Hunting (1997) deeply affected even some real therapists. In Awakenings (1990), Williams plays a doctor modeled after Oliver Sacks, who wrote the book on which the film is based. Sacks later said the way the actor's mind worked was a "form of genius". In 1991, he played an adult Peter Pan in the film Hook, although he had said he would have to lose 25 pounds for the role. Terry Gilliam, who directed Williams in two of his films, The Fisher King (1991) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), said in 1992 that Williams had the ability to "go from manic to mad to tender and vulnerable ... [Williams had] the most unique mind on the planet. There's nobody like him out there."
During a Playboy interview in 1992, Williams was asked whether he ever feared losing his balance between his work and his life. He replied, "There's that fear—if I felt like I was becoming not just dull but a rock, that I still couldn't speak, fire off or talk about things, if I'd start to worry or got too afraid to say something. ... If I stop trying, I get afraid." While he attributed the recent suicide of novelist Jerzy Kosiński to his fear of losing his creativity and sharpness, Williams felt he could overcome those risks. For that, he credited his father for strengthening his self-confidence, telling him to never be afraid of talking about subjects which were important to him.
Williams and his second wife, Marsha, founded a philanthropic organization called the Windfall Foundation to raise money for many charities. In December 1999, he sang in French on the BBC-inspired music video of international celebrities doing a cover of The Rolling Stones single "It's Only Rock 'n Roll (But I Like It)" for the charity Children's Promise.
Williams hosted a talk show for Audible, which premiered in April 2000 and was available exclusively from Audible's website.
During an interview in London in 2002, Williams told Michael Parkinson that Peter Sellers was an important influence, especially his multi-character roles in Dr. Strangelove, stating, "It doesn't get better than that." British comedy actors Dudley Moore and Peter Cook were also among his influences, he told Parkinson.
Other performances Williams had in dramatic films include Moscow on the Hudson (1984), What Dreams May Come (1998), and Bicentennial Man (1999). In Insomnia (2002), Williams portrayed a murderer on the run from a sleep-deprived Los Angeles police detective (played by Al Pacino) in rural Alaska. Also in 2002, in the psychological thriller One Hour Photo, Williams portrayed an emotionally disturbed photo development technician who becomes obsessed with a family for whom he has developed pictures for a long time. The last film of Williams's released during his lifetime was The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, in which Williams played Henry Altmann, an angry, bitter man who reassesses his life and works to redeem himself after being told he has a terminal illness.
In 2003, Williams started drinking again while working on a film in Alaska. In 2006, he checked himself in to a substance-abuse rehabilitation center in Newberg, Oregon, saying he was an alcoholic. Years afterward, Williams acknowledged his failure to maintain sobriety, but said he never returned to using cocaine, declaring in a 2010 interview:
Williams and Reeve had a class in dialects taught by Edith Skinner, who Reeve said was one of the world's leading voice and speech teachers; according to Reeve, Skinner was bewildered by Williams and his ability to instantly perform in many different accents. Their primary acting teacher was Michael Kahn, who was "equally baffled by this human dynamo". Williams already had a reputation for being funny, but Kahn criticized his antics as simple stand-up comedy. In a later production, Williams silenced his critics with his well-received performance as an old man in Tennessee Williams's Night of the Iguana. Reeve wrote, "He simply was the old man. I was astonished by his work and very grateful that fate had thrown us together." The two remained close friends until Reeve's death in 2004. Their friendship was like "brothers from another mother", according to Williams's son Zak.
Williams's stand-up work was a consistent thread through his career, as seen by the success of his one-man show (and subsequent DVD) Robin Williams: Live on Broadway (2002). In 2004, he was voted 13th on Comedy Central's list "100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time". After a six-year hiatus, in August 2008, Williams announced a new 26-city tour, Weapons of Self-Destruction. The tour began at the end of September 2009 and concluded in New York on December 3, and was the subject of an HBO special on December 8, 2009.
Throughout the course of his career Williams won numerous awards, including an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Good Will Hunting (1997). He also won six Golden Globe Awards, including Best Actor—Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for his roles in Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), The Fisher King (1991) and Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), along with the Special Golden Globe Award for Vocal Work in a Motion Picture for his role Genie in Aladdin (1992), and the Cecil B. DeMille award in 2005. He also received two Primetime Emmy Awards, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, and five Grammy Awards.
Williams and Billy Crystal were in an unscripted cameo at the beginning of an episode of the third season of Friends. His many TV appearances included an episode of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and he starred in an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. In 2006, Williams was the Surprise Guest at the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards, and appeared on an episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition that aired on January 30.
Years after the films, Janet Hirshenson revealed in an interview that Williams had expressed interest in portraying Rubeus Hagrid in the Harry Potter film series, but was rejected by director Chris Columbus due to the "British-only edict". In 2006, he starred in five movies, including Man of the Year and The Night Listener, the latter being a thriller about a radio show host who realizes that a child with whom he has developed a friendship may or may not exist. After his death in 2014, four films starring Williams were released: Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, A Merry Friggin' Christmas, Boulevard, and Absolutely Anything.
Williams was raised and sometimes identified himself as an Episcopalian. He described his denomination in a comedy routine as "I have that idea of Chicago protestant, Episcopal—Catholic light: half the religion, half the guilt." He also described himself as an "honorary Jew", and on Israel's 60th Independence Day in 2008, he appeared in Times Square, along with several other celebrities to wish Israel a happy birthday.
Williams voiced characters in several animated films. His voice role as the Genie in the animated musical Aladdin (1992) was written for him. The film's directors said they had taken a risk by writing the role. At first, Williams refused the role since it was a Disney movie, and he did not want the studio profiting by selling merchandise based on the movie. He accepted the role with certain conditions: "I'm doing it basically because I want to be part of this animation tradition. I want something for my children. One deal is, I just don't want to sell anything—as in Burger King, as in toys, as in stuff." Williams improvised much of his dialogue, recording approximately 30 hours of tape, and impersonated dozens of celebrities, including Ed Sullivan, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Groucho Marx, Rodney Dangerfield, William F. Buckley Jr., Peter Lorre, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Arsenio Hall. His role in Aladdin became one of his most recognized and best-loved, and the film was the highest-grossing of 1992; it won numerous awards, including a Special Golden Globe Award for Vocal Work in a Motion Picture for Williams. His performance led the way for other animated films to incorporate actors with more star power. He was named a Disney Legend in 2009.
In March 2009, he was hospitalized due to heart problems. He postponed his one-man tour for surgery to replace his aortic valve, repair his mitral valve, and correct his irregular heartbeat. The surgery was completed on March 13, 2009, at the Cleveland Clinic.
In 2010, he appeared in a sketch with Robert De Niro on Saturday Night Live, and in 2012, guest-starred as himself in two FX series, Louie and Wilfred. In May 2013, CBS started a new series, The Crazy Ones, starring Williams, but the show was canceled after one season.
Williams married his third wife, graphic designer Susan Schneider, on October 22, 2011, in St. Helena, California. The two lived at their house in Sea Cliff, San Francisco, California.
In an essay published in the journal Neurology two years after his death, Schneider revealed that the pathology of Lewy body disease in Williams was described by several doctors as among the worst pathologies they had seen. She described the early symptoms of his disease as beginning in October 2013. Williams's initial condition included a sudden and prolonged spike in fear and anxiety, stress and insomnia, which worsened in severity to include memory loss, paranoia, and delusions. According to Schneider, "Robin was losing his mind and he was aware of it ... He kept saying, 'I just want to reboot my brain.'"
In 2018, HBO produced a documentary about his life and career. Directed by Marina Zenovich, the film, Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, was also screened at the Sundance Film Festival. That same year, a mural of Robin Williams was created on Market Street, in San Francisco. Work on a book biography was begun by New York Times writer David Itzkoff in 2014, and was published in 2018, entitled simply Robin.
On August 11, 2014, Williams committed suicide by hanging at his home in Paradise Cay, California. His body was cremated at Monte's Chapel of the Hills in San Anselmo, and his ashes were scattered over San Francisco Bay the next day.
On August 11, 2014, at age 63, Williams committed suicide at his home in Paradise Cay, California. His widow, Susan Schneider Williams, as well as medical experts and his autopsy, attributed his suicide to his struggle with Lewy body disease.
At the United Nations Headquarters on August 12, 2014, Robin Williams was celebrated during the opening of the International Youth Day. In the presence of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, Assistant Secretary General Thomas Gass paid tribute to Williams by standing on the pulpit of the ECOSOC Chamber and quoting Keating's lines from the 1989 film Dead Poets Society: "Dare to look at things in a different way!" Several fans similarly paid tribute to Williams on social media with photo and video reenactments of Dead Poets Society's "O Captain! My Captain!" scene.
Shortly after his death, Disney Channel, Disney XD, and Disney Junior all aired the original Aladdin commercial-free over the course of a week, with a dedicated drawing of the genie at the end of each airing before the credits. In honor of his theater work, the lights of Broadway were darkened for the evening of August 14, 2014. That night, the cast of the Aladdin musical honored Williams by having the audience join them in a sing-along of "Friend Like Me", an Oscar-nominated song originally sung by Williams in the 1992 film Aladdin.
During the 66th Primetime Emmy Awards on August 25, 2014, close friend and fellow comedian Billy Crystal presented a tribute to Williams, referring to him as "the brightest star in our comedy galaxy". Afterwards, some of Williams's best comedy moments were shown, including his first ever The Tonight Show appearance, indicating his great life in making people laugh. Talk show hosts including David Letterman, Conan O'Brien, Seth Meyers, Jimmy Kimmel, and Jimmy Fallon paid tribute to Williams on their respective shows.
On September 9, 2014, PBS aired a one-hour special devoted to his career, and on September 27, 2014, dozens of leading stars and celebrities held a tribute in San Francisco to celebrate his life and career.
The final autopsy report, released in November 2014, concluded that he "died of asphyxia due to hanging". Neither alcohol nor illegal drugs were involved, and prescription drugs present in his body were at therapeutic levels. The report also noted that Williams had been suffering from depression and anxiety. An examination of his brain tissue suggested Williams suffered from "diffuse Lewy body dementia". Describing the disease as "the terrorist inside my husband's brain", his widow Susan Schneider Williams said that "however you look at it—the presence of Lewy bodies took his life", referring to his previous diagnosis of Parkinson's. She revealed that in the year before his death, Williams had experienced a sudden and prolonged spike in fear and anxiety, depression, and insomnia, which worsened in severity to include memory loss, paranoia, and delusions. Medical experts struggled to determine a cause, and eventually diagnosed him with Parkinson's disease.
He also became a devoted cycling enthusiast, having taken up the sport partly as a substitute for drugs. Eventually, he accumulated a large bicycle collection and became a fan of professional road cycling, often traveling to racing events, such as the Tour de France. In 2016, his children donated 87 of his bicycles in support of the Challenged Athletes Foundation and Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.
A tunnel, painted with a rainbow, on Highway 101 north of the Golden Gate Bridge was officially named the "Robin Williams Tunnel" on February 29, 2016.
In 2017, Sharon Meadow in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, the home of the annual Comedy Day, was renamed Robin Williams Meadow.
In August 2020, Vertical Entertainment released a trailer for a new documentary, Robin's Wish, exploring Williams's battle with Lewy body dementia. The film, directed by Tylor Norwood, was digitally released on September 1, 2020.