On this day in 2014, actor Robin Williams is found dead at his home in Tiburon, California, after an apparent suicide. As a performer, the versatile, inventive Williams was known as both a comic genius with a rapid-fire delivery and talent for impressions, and an accomplished dramatic actor who took on a broad range of roles. Williams was survived by three spouses, three adult children and countless millions so touched by his presence we all felt as though we knew him personally.
Williams’s father, Robert, was an executive for the Lincoln division of Ford Motor Company, and his mother was a former fashion model. He early learned to use humor to entertain classmates and was a fan of comedian Jonathan Winters. In late 1963, when Williams was 12, his father was transferred to Metro Detroit, where the family lived in a 40-room farmhouse on 20 acres in Bloomfield Hills. Williams attended the private Detroit Country Day School, where he excelled in academics, played on the school’s soccer and wrestling teams, and was elected class president.
Soon after Williams turned 16, his father retired, and the family moved to the San Francisco area. Williams studied political science at Claremont McKenna College, and began taking courses in improvisation. He then attended the College of Marin to study acting but later received a scholarship to study at the Juilliard School in New York City.
Williams eventually moved back to California, where he began appearing in comedy clubs in the early 1970’s, and soon was guest starring on several television shows, including The Richard Pryor Show and Laugh-In. After guest appearances as the alien Mork on Happy Days, Williams was given his own show, Mork & Mindy (1978–82). The series offered Williams the opportunity to transfer the enthusiasm of his stand-up performances to the small screen and provided an outlet for his prolific improvisational talents. Mork & Mindy proved an immense success and was instrumental in launching Williams’s film career; the pay also helped fuel Williams infatuation with substance and alcohol abuse.
Williams’s early movie appearances included leads in Popeye (1980) and The World According to Garp (1982), but his first major role came with Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), in which he portrayed the irreverent military disc jockey Adrian Cronauer. The role earned Williams his first Academy Award nomination. His second came soon after for his performance as an inspirational English teacher at a preparatory school in Dead Poets Society (1989). Williams also began a practice of lending his talent to family films as well.
While undoubtedly a successful comedic actor, Williams was equally adept at more-sober roles. He played a distressed former professor in The Fisher King (1991) and a psychiatrist who mentors a troubled but mathematically gifted young man played by Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting (1997). Both films earned Williams Academy Award nominations, and for Good Will Hunting he finally received his Oscar.
Williams remained active, appearing in a slow string of hits and some misses, when in 2011 he made his Broadway acting debut in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, a surreal comic drama set during the Iraq War. In 2013 he returned to movies, portraying a priest in the star-studded farce The Big Wedding and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower in Lee Daniels’ The Butler. The TV series The Crazy Ones, in which he played the head of an ad agency, premiered later that year; it was canceled in 2014. Williams then portrayed a man who attempts to reconcile with friends and family following a terminal diagnosis in the comedy The Angriest Man in Brooklyn (2014). Boulevard (2014), in which he played a closeted gay man who befriends a male prostitute, was released after his death.
In mid-2014, Williams admitted himself into the Hazelden Foundation Addiction Treatment Center in Minnesota, seeking treatment for alcoholism. His publicist commented that he was suffering from severe depression before his death. Wife Susan Schneider stated that in the period before his death, Williams had been sober, but was diagnosed with early stage Parkinson’s disease, which was information he was “not yet ready to share publicly.”
Schneider remarked that an autopsy revealed Williams had diffuse Lewy body dementia, which had been diagnosed as Parkinson’s; most believe this drove his depression. According to Schneider, “Robin was losing his mind and he was aware of it . . . He kept saying, ‘I just want to reboot my brain.'”
The most appropriate summation of William’s career is provided by the 44th and last legitimate POTUS, who stated “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 marginalized 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.”