The Legendary Robin Williams
1 Academy Award, 6 Golden Globe Awards, 4 Grammy Awards, 3 Emmy Awards and 85 nominations. 5 recorded stand-up stand-up specials and over 70 film appearances. Starred in 92 sitcom episodes. Film actor and stand-up comedian. Considered by some to be the saddest clown, by others the funniest man in the world, and by some to be both at the same time. He is Robin Williams, and this is a summary of his life’s work.
Who is Robin Williams?
I admit I had trouble writing this post. I was sure that I wanted to write about Robin Williams, as he is not only one of my favorite comedians but also one of the biggest icons in the comedy world.
However, the comedian had serious problems that make it difficult to remember him. He had drug and alcohol problems, divorced twice (and remarried), suffered from depression, and had serious financial problems at the end of his life. He also suffered from professional criticism. Throughout his stand-up career, he was repeatedly accused of plagiarism, i.e. stealing other comedians’ jokes. He took his own life in 2014 at the age of 63.
I found out how Robin Williams became the multi-faceted performer the world has come to know and love. To do so, I watched the documentary HBO’s “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind”, read the biography Robin by David Itzkoff, the portrait book Duna Könyvklub Robin Williams, watched his stand-up shows, re-watched some of his films, and read numerous online materials, interviews, and articles about him. In this post I have collected the most interesting and informative facts.
A strictly funny family
Robin Williams was born in 1951 and grew up as an only child in a wealthy but rather odd family environment. Although he had older half-siblings on both his father’s and mother’s sides, they lived in separate households and saw relatively little of each other. Accordingly, Robin received all the parental attention, at least as far as the Williams household was concerned.
The personalities of his parents were almost diametrically opposed, a strange combination of which was embodied in Robin. His father, Robert Williams, was a hard-headed, hard-working man who had built a managerial career at Ford. He was a taciturn man who believed firmly in hard work and the discipline he demanded of Robin. At home, for example, Robin would call his parents “sir” and “ma’am”, which was an absolutely natural gesture.
The building of Rob Williams’ career had a great influence on the life of the family. In the course of his work, the family moved from town to town a great deal, as a result of which Robin mastered the art of fitting in at a high level. Robin changed schools 6 times in 8 years, so he was constantly making new friends. Having been exposed to a wide range of environments and personality types as a child, he had the opportunity to assess the personality traits, stories, and gestures that he could most easily relate to.
In contrast, Robin Williams’ mother, Laurie McLaurin Janin, was extroverted and quite social. Laurie took great pleasure in entertaining Rob Williams’ partners and colleagues at their business dinners, a feat Robin watched with a wary eye. Robin quickly learned that one of the quickest ways to connect with people was to make them laugh.
Robin loved his mother’s humor, which came in all sorts of forms: sight gags, characters, and odd poetry readings. He saw how much these stunts amused the performer (i.e. his mother), so, to keep her attention on himself, Robin began to imitate her. By Robin’s own admission, his desire to make his mother laugh was a major influence on his later career as a comedian.
It seems that a hard-working, introverted, career-oriented dad and a highly social, extroverted, and fun mother are a good foundation for a successful comedian. Perhaps this is just a good-sounding phrase, but in any case Robin himself later admitted that:
I learned madness from my mother and discipline from my father.
The birth of an actor
After high school, Robin began studying political science at a boarding school for boys. The choice of a “respectable profession” was, of course, most urged by his father. The overly gloomy atmosphere of the school, however, didn’t hold the wayward Robin back, so he started going to improvisational theatre classes, partly because “that’s where the ladies were”.
But improv offered more than just a chance to get laid: it provided a platform for Robin to bring characters she had only tried out at home to a live audience. Together with her classmates, Robin formed an improv group called Karma Pie and performed live twice a week in front of their fellow students.
Robin gained a small following in the school community for his performances and humor. In addition to his improv performances, he began to appear in other student productions. Once for example he played a shisha-smoking caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland. But the glamour came at a price: Robin’s grades began a rapid decline, which at one point he couldn’t fight off. By his later admission, one of his macroeconomics papers, for example, contained a single sentence: “Sir, I have no idea”.
The decline in his grades was, of course, not taken too kindly by Robin’s father. “That’s not why I’m paying for your education,” he remarked coldly. Robin was forced to drop out of political science, and as a result, made one of the most momentous decisions of his life. Although the realization was met with a mixed reception from his parents, Robin finally formulated and said out loud what he wanted to do: “I want to be an actor”.
When I said I wanted to be an actor, my father said “Wonderful, just have a backup profession, like welding.” – Robin Williams on accepting the Oscar
The misunderstood artist
Robin was 22 when she was accepted into one of the world’s most prestigious art schools, the Juilliard School in New York.
With his explosive, improvisational style, Robin Williams immediately stood out among Juilliard students. He was constantly joking and improvising characters in the school’s hallways. Paul Perri, one of Robin’s fellow students, recounted how he was shocked when Robin, inspired by the sight of a Coke machine, pulled a 5-minute act out of thin air.
He did five minutes in imitation of a Coke machine. It was funny, but of course, everything’s funny when you’re young. But what stuck with me the most was the five minute part of it. It had a beginning, middle and end. It wasn’t just a concept, it was completely real. It was beautiful and physically spectacular. Robin thought faster than anyone I’ve ever seen.
He went off script countless times, which both annoyed and impressed his teachers and fellow students. He has parodied celebrities and, when reading Shakespeare’s works, he has improvised unique and funny lines into the classic. Shakespeare’s improvisations were also a favorite in later performances. His boundless energy and humorous private jokes made him widely popular at school.
Robin loved what he did. In addition to his studies, he often performed his street pantomime routines, usually collecting spare change in front of Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was through pantomime performances that he first encountered the concept of a hostile audience: once, while performing in front of a block of flats, a resident unexpectedly threw a bucket of cold water on him. “It was like a slap in the face,” he later said of the experience.
It later became clear, however, that Robin didn’t really fit in with Juilliard’s Prussian, conservative methods. Told that the school could teach her nothing new, she dropped out after three years (of the four-year course). Another fellow student, Richard Levine, put it this way:
School has a tendency to rob you of your individuality and expression. As you rebuild these idiosyncrasies, you will have more opportunities, but you will not be attached to them, so you will be able to adapt them to the role. I understand this philosophy, it makes sense. But Robin’s wings were rather broken by it, he had to go his own way.
Robin Williams, 26, moved to San Francisco and a year later tried his luck in Los Angeles. Unable to get a job as an actor, he plunged into stand-up, a talent that got him noticed by TV producers. As a result, Robin started doing stand-up and improv on TV shows.
Robin Williams’ stand-up shows were successful because of his character parodies. He didn’t tell jokes. He didn’t use comic timing and quite a few times even missed the punch line. Whether we look at his stand-up performances or his late-night show appearances, we see that instead of classic stand-up, Robin used a lot of accents and a lot of characters, but he brought them to life with full conviction.
In addition to these, the performer also used other less conventional stand-up tools. He was one of the first comedians to avoid using a handheld microphone when he could. He often walked off stage, which was very unusual at the time. Thanks to his experience in improvisation, he was not afraid to interact with the audience, which again made him stand out from the ranks of comedians.
Robin was not picky about his subjects. His material included politicians, celebrities, and even his personal problems. He made jokes about alcoholism, cocaine and, of course, he made penis jokes too.
Psst! If you go to Neverland, there’s a sign that says “You have to be this tall to sit on Michael!” – Robin Williams Live On Broadway
I’ve read in several places that the comedian has been repeatedly accused of plagiarism or stealing jokes. It’s the most serious crime in the comedy world, and it causes a big amount of conflict among aspiring comedians. It is of course a very unpleasant subject, as malicious rumors can be very damaging. In the absence of evidence, it is difficult to pass judgment on the matter, as we have heard of cases where successful performers are being stalked by slanderers trying to get this or that kind of benefit.
The sources I first found were not very reliable - a blog post without links, a gossip site that seems to be a clickbait, and a Reddit post - but I also found a podcast interview in which Robin Williams himself admits that he did indeed improvise and, unintentionally recite material he had heard before. In such cases, the comedian would compensate the original composers financially afterward.
Mork & Mindy: The Robin Williams Show
The real breakthrough for Robin Williams, however, came with the sitcom series Mork and Mindy. The show turned the 27-year-old stand-up comedian into a well-known TV actor in one fell swoop. The show’s starring role came from his guest appearance in an episode of another then-dying sitcom, Happy Days. The character of Mork, the alien embodied by Robin, was so popular that the producers set about making his own series.
Robin was given almost completely free rein in his character, so he - naturally - improvised a lot. Robin’s acting was so unpredictable that the crew had to get a fourth camera, in addition to the three fixed ones, to follow the actor’s every move.
One legend has it that the writers adapted to this way of working: instead of specific instructions or lines, the script often simply said “Robin does his thing here”. But this was only partly true. Robin Williams’ improvisation caused some tension in the team. On the one hand, it was often difficult for his fellow actors to keep up with him, which left them feeling vulnerable. On the other hand, the writers also felt degraded, as their work was often considered null and void. There was one occasion when Robin’s script simply said “Robin does his thing here”, but this was intended more as sarcasm than as a real instruction.
According to Dale McRaven, one of the show’s producers, Robin’s improvisational gags have also fallen on deaf ears. Robin would say “Okay, let me try that again” and try another variation, followed by silence. Robin said “One more time, one last time!” and the third joke was met with laughter. The third joke was the character’s original text, written by the writers.
It was well known that the actor didn’t just make fun of himself when the camera was rolling. In between the breaks, he was also in the studio, constantly cracking jokes and rehearsing his stand-up material. His personality was such a towering force on the show that his colleagues often referred to the series simply as The Robin Williams Show.
Youth, folly, cocaine
The late 1970s were the rock ‘n roll era for Robin Williams, drenched in chicks, alcohol, and cocaine strips. He was young (~27), popular, and making lots of money. By day he starred in one of the most popular sitcoms of the era, and by night he would rush onto the stages of local comedy clubs to perform stand-up.
When I was young I had sex with a prostitute. I was so bad, she gave me the money back.” – Robin Williams in Man of the Year
It was also the first time Robin encountered the downside of popularity. He got a lot of requests because everyone wanted a piece of Robin Williams. Performance after performance, filming after filming. It was then that the actor realised that he simply couldn’t say no to the requests - a fact that also affected his first marriage at the time. He expresses this in an episode of the series. In a bittersweet scene from Mork Meets Robin Williams, the actor talks to himself about being a burden and “wanting people to like him, for which he hates himself”.
Mork and Mindy has survived for a total of four seasons, and it was one of the most defining moments of the comedian’s career. It brought the comedian widespread popularity, and the character of Mork became forever intertwined with Robin Williams.
Good morning Hollywood!
Thanks to the success of his sitcom series and stand-up shows, Robin Williams landed his first Hollywood role at the age of 29. His Popeye character’s grimaces and cartoon-like movements were a perfect fit for his comedic profile. Although the film did not do badly at the box office, it failed to win the approval of audiences and critics, it was still a gateway to Hollywood for Robin Williams.
This was followed by a 6-year acting career in which the comedian failed to make a real breakthrough. Once a big name, Robin Williams’ portrait was moved from the covers of magazines to the “What’s happened to them since?” sections. During this period, Robin continued to perform stand-up and even toured using his fame. His stand-up shows began to take on a more personal tone, often discussing the difficulties of marriage, cocaine and his film career.
Cocaine is God’s way of letting you know you’re making too much money” – Robin Williams, 1982
One of the biggest milestones of Robin’s film career was Good Morning, Vietnam!, which the actor shot at the age of 34. The film’s success was due to two reasons. First, it was an apt treatment of the sensitive subject of the Vietnam War, dealing with the everyday lives of soldiers rather than political statements.
The other reason for the film’s success was Robin Williams himself, who played the role of a local radio operator - Adrian Cronauer - who entertained soldiers stationed in Vietnam with his shows. This role allowed the actor to use his improvisational, stand-up, and acting skills at the same time.
The comedy material in the film was written by Robin Williams himself, with the help of his wife. This proved to be a difficult task, as Robin found himself in a comedy vacuum: there were no comedy clubs in Bangkok, where the film was shot, to try out his material. And the only people present on the set were the crew, most of whom were British and Thai, who didn’t really understand the idea of making fun of President Nixon. So the jokes were almost always followed by silence, which made it very difficult for Robin to act and for the director to evaluate.
Road to the Oscars
After the success of Good Morning, Vietnam!, Robin Williams was relentless. He wanted to show that he could act as well as do stand-up. It was at this time that he gradually began to shift to more dramatic and restrained roles, much to the surprise of those around him. In contrast to the frenetic and energetic roles he had been used to, the actor became increasingly restrained, as can be seen in his trio of Dead Poets Society (1989), Awakenings (1990), and Good Will Hunting_ (1997). At the time, there was also an outright joke about Robin Williams, otherwise known for his bursting energy, that he would play a potato in his next film.
The actor continued to take on film roles throughout his life, but his most significant roles came in the 1990s. He won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture for his performance in Good Will Hunting, and dubbed one of the biggest icons of the animated world, Genie, written specifically for Robin Williams (Aladdin, 1992).
Robin used his improvisational skills whenever he could. One of his most famous scenes, which was included in the finished production after improvisation, is his flashback to his dead wife in Good Will Hunting. In the scene, he is talking to his mentor Will about the beauty of love when he mentions that his wife farted so much in her sleep that it woke their dog. The line caught the whole crew off guard, so Matt Damon’s laughter in the scene is genuine, and the camera shake from the cameraman’s laughter is still seen in the film today.
The big why
Robin Williams suffered from Lewy body dementia at the end of his life. His real illness was only discovered after his death. Originally he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which had symptoms very similar to his real illness. This condition caused the actor-comedian to suffer from paranoia, insomnia, panic attacks, tremors, extreme anxiety, and gradual mental deterioration.
An excerpt from a biography of Robin’s illness written by New York Times reporter Dave Itzkoff reveals that in the last months of his life, Robin Williams was no longer himself. Several friends reported that sometimes Robin needed up to 10 seconds to answer a simple question. Often he would be lost in thought, other times he would be in fits of tears. His illness proved to be untreatable, with no cure, doctor, or treatment to help. Robin was aware of all this, and his slow mental deterioration could not be stopped by any means. Robin Williams committed suicide on 11 August 2014.
Robin died of Lewy body dementia, but the world wants other causes; depression, drugs, career, relationships, that sort of thing. The truth is he had a disease that attacked his brain directly.” – Bobcat Goldthwait
The legendary Robin Williams
Robin Williams is one of the world’s most influential comedians and one of the most memorable film actors. He’s achieved what most comedians dream of: a plethora of stand-up albums and video shows, a starring role in a popular sitcom series, and a successful Oscar-winning film career. Whether it’s any of his films, shows, or performances, you can see that Robin Williams has worked from the heart. Throughout his life, he chose a career and did what he loved most, and perhaps what he was best at. He made everyone he knew laugh.