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In the late winter of 1978, I was just finding my stride in my freshman year of high school. Like most every other teen of the era, TV dominated my existence, and a hugely popular show about life in the ‘50s and ‘60s had just entered the most successful period of its 10-year run — Happy Days. This one show spawned several spin-offs, gave us iconic characters, and was even responsible for the curious catchphrase “jumping the shark,” which is now a normal part of our TV-viewing lexicon.
In the latter half of its fifth season, the show took a real risk. It gave us a bizarre story about an alien coming to Milwaukee to find an Earthling to take back to its home planet. This outrageous alien was played by a relatively unknown new comedian named Robin Williams. The episode caught everyone by surprise and was the talk of America. No one had seen anything like this powder keg of a character or its real-life actor.
That single appearance was so electric that the show’s producers did something unheard of. They immediately created a new show perfectly designed to showcase the network’s latest find. Mork & Mindy debuted just a few months later and was so successful that its inaugural season finished an incredible third in the ratings — one slot ahead of Happy Days.
That’s the type of meteoric rise everyone dreams of but that almost no one ever experiences. Robin Williams’s instant fame shot him right into the very center of just such an alluring and powerful maelstrom.
A forgettable film debut
His first leading role came in 1980’s Popeye. While mainly forgettable, everyone agreed that Williams was the perfect — and possibly only — actor who could potentially make the role work. His next feature film cast him as the lead in the film adaptation of John Irving’s blockbuster book, The World According to Garp. It featured a young Glenn Close and a not-yet-known actor named John Lithgow, whose breakout performance as a troubled transsexual would earn him an Academy Award nomination. However, for me, the real standout of the bunch was Williams. By that time, everyone openly wondered if there was anything more to Williams than his unbridled, often outlandish, theatrics. His seminal portrayal as T.S. Garp showed a remarkable range that assured me this was just the beginning.
It was around this time that beloved comedic actor John Belushi died as a result of a cocaine and heroin overdose. Belushi and Williams were very close friends, having often partied together in every sense of the word. Talk began circulating that Williams’s frenetic style wasn’t really all that inexplicable — it was just the result of an unfettered cocaine addiction. Williams, of course, initially denied it all. It wasn’t until much later that we all found out that the rumors were true.
His filmography continued to improve with memorable portrayals in three of his next five films. He played a paranoid loose cannon in The Survivors, a resilient, freedom-loving Russian in Moscow on the Hudson, and a burned-out fireman who retires to the Caribbean in Club Paradise. Each film experienced a bit of a cult following, but none of them resonated with a larger audience. Hollywood, and the press, began to question Williams’s future.
A turnaround role
Then we got Good Morning, Vietnam. Williams portrayed, loosely, real-life airman and Armed Forces Radio D.J. Adrian Cronauer. It was the perfect vehicle for Williams’s talents. Large segments of the film involve Cronauer doing essentially a modified stand-up routine for his adoring audience. Who better to fill those shoes than the unquestionable king of ad-lib: Robin Williams. The result was as dramatic as the actor, with the film drawing rave reviews and strong audiences. Williams, for his part, won a Golden Globe award and an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor — and yet, soon thereafter, the pundits once again began to whisper.
For all its success, many felt that Good Morning, Vietnam was an aberration. Its storyline was almost tailor-made to match Williams’s style. It still left many wondering if he had what it took to deliver in a serious role. He answered them all with 1989’s Dead Poets Society, portraying a professor at a prestigious private boarding school. The role did give him some comedic license, but, more to the point, proved that Williams was so much more than just a joker. Countless people today use the Latin mantra “carpe diem” as a result of his unforgettably moving speech. Never again would Hollywood question Williams’s range as an actor. All that was left was an Oscar win to prove the point.
1990 brought us his portrayal of a socially awkward, but steadfast and dedicated doctor in the hauntingly beautiful Awakenings. Williams not only impressed reviewers, but he also managed to outshine his costar, Hollywood legend Robert De Niro.
He wowed critics and garnered another Oscar nomination in Terry Gilliam’s 1991 quirky comedy The Fisher King, starring alongside Jeff Bridges. In a surreal but touching scene, Williams gallivants around devoid of any clothing, showing full frontal nudity while cherishing the thrill of true freedom.
Steven Spielberg jumped on the Williams express for his adaptation of Peter Pan in 1991’s Hook. Critics hated it, but audiences loved it. Today it remains the fifth most successful pirate-themed film, behind the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
Disney wasn’t about to miss out on the fun and placed Williams in another flawlessly symbiotic casting job for 1992’s Aladdin. No one had any doubt about what to expect, and yet, Williams’s voice-over work still managed to surprise everyone.
Having it all
The following year Williams continued his incredible run, playing a father forced into cross-dressing in order to spend more time with his beloved children in Mrs. Doubtfire. The role allowed Williams to have it all. He could be the crazy comic when in costume and offset it with a touching performance as a desperate dad.
The next few years saw his acting career begin to slide. There would be some high points (Jumanji, The Birdcage) but nothing of the caliber of the previous few years — and the Oscar still eluded him. 1994 did bring a curiously underappreciated turn as three different characters in Being Human — one of my own personal favorites of his career.
Then in 1997, Williams would finally break the jinx as a tormented psychologist in Good Will Hunting. His performance as Sean Maguire stood out for its dramatic depth almost exclusively. Once again, Williams showed that he had a talent that couldn’t be easily labeled. It would also, unbeknownst to anyone at the time, mark the pinnacle of his incredible acting career.
Over the remaining 17 years, he’d portray a number of memorable characters in less successful films. 1998 brought two wonderful pieces: the hilarious comedy Patch Adams and the ominously powerful What Dreams May Come. In 1999, he gave us the touching but sorely mismanaged masterpiece Bicentennial Man. In 2006, he played the role that would end up also being the final one of his career as the wax figure of Teddy Roosevelt in Night at the Museum and its two sequels.
Onscreen and off
When the king of late-night TV, Johnny Carson, retired in 1992, he invited Robin Williams to be the first of his two final interviews for the show. Carson understood just how special Williams really was.
Behind the camera, Williams was often just as dependable as he was onscreen. When his old roommate, Superman actor Christopher Reeve, was paralyzed after a riding accident, it was Williams who immediately showed up to help his old friend morally, physically, and financially.
And yet, for a man with such an incredible résumé, somehow his style and schtick managed to grow old for many. I would cringe whenever he appeared on the original Tonight Show. You just knew that, for the next ten minutes, the show would be nothing short of chaos incarnate. When he admitted to having battled alcohol and drug addiction, he received far more backlash than empathy. Only very recently did anyone understand that Williams was also struggling with depression so deep that it would cause him to take his own life. Looking back, one has to wonder if he struggled with the perception that most of what he’d worked for was not his own creation but nothing more than the by-product of the very substances that haunted him.
All told, Williams gave the world no less than a dozen iconic characters and performances. How many other actors can make such a claim? And yet, like so many times before, we are once again too late in fully appreciating the talents of a unique man while he was still with us. Johnny Carson got it and made sure Robin knew it. We had the incredible luck to find ourselves in the same space and time as an amazing individual — and now it’s over. Thankfully his work endures for everyone to appreciate.
Mr. Williams, you will be missed.
More remembrances by Tom Hannigan, Maria Thompson Corley, Chris Predmore, Tara Lynn Johnson, Michael Lawrence, Gary L. Day, Thom Nickels, and Armen Pandola.
Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams in Hook (© Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
John Lithgow and Robin Williams in The World According to Garp (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images - © 2012 Getty Images)
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