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Williams a comic force

Published: 
Wednesday, August 13, 2014
This photo was posted on the Sesame Street Twitter account along with the message, “We mourn the loss of our friend Robin Williams, who always made us laugh and smile.” 

Actor and comedian Robin Williams died on Monday, apparently from suicide. He was known for his roles in the sitcom Mork and Mindy and movies like The World According to Garp, The Fisher King, Good Morning Vietnam, Mrs Doubtfire and Good Will Hunting, for which he won an Oscar. He was also known to be battling with severe depression and alcoholism. Here we take a look back at his life and his struggle with drugs and drink. 

Obituary

Williams was a comic force of nature. The world got to know him as the wild alien in Mork & Mindy, a comedian who elevated improvisation to an art form and also demonstrated a rare versatility in more serious roles. He moved seamlessly from comedy to drama to tragedy to comedy again during a Hollywood heyday in the 1980s and 1990s. His Academy Award as a supporting actor in Good Will Hunting came in a drama.

In 1997, Entertainment Weekly magazine named Williams the funniest man alive, and the very next year listed him as one of the world’s 25 best actors—a double distinction that made him rare, if not unique.

He touched every generation and demographic, making his entrance in a 1970s comic generation with Steve Martin, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Billy Crystal. He exploded onto the scene at a time when two schools of comedy dominated—Saturday Night Live and Johnny Carson—and Williams felt equally comfortable running with both crowds.

Williams was the voice of a genie in Aladdin and a hyper disc jockey in Good Morning Vietnam. In Mrs Doubtfire, he played a dad who dressed as a woman to see his kids, and in Birdcage, he played a gay man. He was an English teacher in Dead Poets Society, a scientist in Awakenings and a prisoner of war in Jakob the Liar. In The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, Williams played a man mistakenly told he had 90 minutes to live.

On a stage, in front of the lights, is where Williams shined most brightly. The riffs, tangents and impersonations came rushing at the audience, a seemingly endless torrent. It looked like onstage cocaine, a drug he abused in real life and, of course, made part of his comedy.

“Cocaine is God’s way of telling you you are making too much money,” he would say.

On a television talk show, hosts knew Williams barely needed to be wound up. Sometimes, he needed only an audience of one: Williams visited Christopher Reeve a week after the actor’s horseback riding accident, dressed in scrubs with a surgical mask and speaking in a Russian accent.

The roles became less prominent as he aged and a different generation took the spotlight. Last year, CBS cast him as the star of the sitcom The Crazy Ones, in which Williams played the colourful elder statesman at a Chicago ad agency. The network had high hopes for the comedy, which also starred Sarah Michelle Gellar, but they quickly faded and the show was cancelled after one season.

That didn’t make Williams unique— Michael J Fox also failed in a recent return to television—but it was an indication that Williams was no longer a sure ticket to success.

Like many comedians, Williams often seemed driven by demons. He had a complicated personal life, suffered from depression and was treated for substance abuse, most recently earlier this summer. He did a few lines of cocaine with John Belushi on the last night of that comic’s life.

A darkness seeped in during an interview with comedian Marc Maron in 2010, where Williams seemingly dismissed what would be a career highlight for many actors. “People say you’re an Academy Award winner,” he said. “The Academy Award lasted about a week and then one week later, people went, ‘Hey Mork!’”

Stand-up comedy was where Williams got the most satisfaction.

“You get the feedback,” Williams said in a 2007 interview with The Associated Press. “There’s an energy. It’s live theater. That’s why I think actors like that. You know, musicians need it, comedians definitely need it. It doesn’t matter what size and what club, whether it’s 30 people in the club or 2,000 in a hall or a theatre. It’s live, it’s symbiotic, you need it.”

Battle with drink and drugs

In 2009, Williams spoke with UK Guardian writer Decca Aitkenhead about his battle with drink and drugs. This is an excerpt from that interview. 

Williams used to be a big-drinking cocaine addict, but quit both before the birth of his eldest son in 1983, and stayed sober for 20 years. On location in Alaska in 2003, however, he started drinking again. He brings this up himself, and the minute he does he becomes more engaged.

"I was in a small town where it's not the edge of the world, but you can see it from there, and then I thought: drinking. I just thought, hey, maybe drinking will help. Because I felt alone and afraid. It was that thing of working so much, and going fuck, maybe that will help. And it was the worst thing in the world." What did he feel like when he had his first drink? "You feel warm and kind of wonderful. And then the next thing you know, it's a problem, and you're isolated."

Some have suggested it was Reeve's death that turned him back to drink. "No," he says quietly, "it's more selfish than that. It's just literally being afraid. And you think, oh, this will ease the fear. And it doesn't." What was he afraid of? "Everything. It's just a general all-round arggghhh. It's fearfulness and anxiety."

He didn't take up cocaine again, because "I knew that would kill me". I'd have thought it would be a case of in for a penny – "In for a gram?" he smiles. "No. Cocaine – paranoid and impotent, what fun. There was no bit of me thinking, ooh, let's go back to that. Useless conversations until midnight, waking up at dawn feeling like a vampire on a day pass. No."

It only took a week of drinking before he knew he was in trouble, though. "For that first week you lie to yourself, and tell yourself you can stop, and then your body kicks back and says, no, stop later. And then it took about three years, and finally you do stop."

It wasn't, he says, fun while it lasted, but three years sounds like a long time not to be having fun. "That's right. Most of the time you just realise you've started to do embarrassing things." He recalls drinking at a charity auction hosted by Sharon Stone at Cannes: "And I realised I was pretty baked, and I look out and I see all of a sudden a wall of paparazzi. And I go, 'Oh well, I guess it's out now'."

In the end it was a family intervention that put him into residential rehab. I wonder if he was "Robin Williams" in rehab, and he agrees. "Yeah, you start off initially riffing, and kind of being real funny. But the weird thing is, how can you do a comic turn without betraying the precepts of group therapy? Eventually you shed it."

Williams still attends AA meetings at least once a week – "Have to. It's good to go" – and I suspect this accounts for a fair bit of his Zen solemnity. At times it verges on sentimental: he asks if I have children, and when I tell him I have a baby son he nods gravely, as if I've just shared. "Congrats. Good luck. It's a pretty wonderful thing." 

Peers pay tributes to Robin Williams

To watch Robin work, was a magical and special privilege. His performances were unlike anything any of us had ever seen, they came from some spiritual and otherworldly place. He truly was one of the few people who deserved the title of ‘genius.’

Chris Columbus, director of Mrs Doubtfire and Bicentennial Man.

Robin was a lightning storm of comic genius and our laughter was the thunder that sustained him. He was a pal and I can’t believe he’s gone.

Stephen Spielberg, director of Hook

“Sad to think about this. Hard to speak. Hard to say. Hard to take. All I can think about is what a joy he was to be with. I’m devastated. I’m sending my love to his family and everyone who loved him. My heart is broken by this news.” 

Danny De Vito, directed Williams in black comedy Death to Smoochy. 

Mr. Williams visited me the first day of filming The Parent Trap. I will never forget his kindness. What an enormous loss. My condolences.

Actress Lindsay Lohan

Robin Williams was an airman, a doctor, a genie, a nanny, a president, a professor, a bangarang Peter Pan, and everything in between. But he was one of a kind. He arrived in our lives as an alien – but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit. He made us laugh. He made us cry. He gave his immeasurable talent freely and generously to those who needed it most — from our troops stationed abroad to the marginalised on our own streets. The Obama family offers our condolences to Robin’s family, his friends and everyone who found their voice and their verse thanks to Robin Williams.

President Barack Obama