Social media stilled last night to remember the beloved comic actor, a bundle of manic energy and a master of many moods who first delighted, then touched, audiences. Favorite roles and movies were evoked: Mork. Garp. Good Morning, Vietnam. Dead Poets Society. Aladdin. Mrs. Doubtfire. Good Will Hunting. Steve Martin, friend and colleague, tweeted, “I could not be more stunned by the loss of Robin Williams, mensch, great talent, acting partner, genuine soul.” Sentiments shared by everyone saddened over his death, apparently by his own hand, at age 63.
Children of the '70s saw the Julliard-trained Williams burst onto the TV screen in the sitcom Mork & Mindy (1978-1982), which spun off from a zany, unexpected debut for the alien from Ork on the usually more buttoned-down series Happy Days. Having captured lightning in a bottle, producer Garry Marshall gave the 27-year-old performer free rein to electrify audiences with spasms of improvised comic brilliance grafted onto familiar fish-out-of-water plots. What Williams did with the character wasn’t entirely new; he claimed inspiration from fellow eccentrics like Jonathan Winters, who joined the show (as his son) in its rapid decline after a spectacular ascent fueled by Williams' Emmy-nominated antics. But Mork, whose nonsense phrases like “Shazbot!” and “Na-nu Na-nu” were imitated on playgrounds across America, broke the mold.
To sustain momentum, the restless performer knew he had to grow up. In 1980, the year he won the first of five Grammy Awards for the adult-oriented comedy album Reality…What a Concept, he made his starring debut in Robert Altman’s feature film of Popeye. Williams’ incarnation of the comic strip character, joined by Shelley Duvall’s spirited Olive Oyl, was a hit in a movie that was mostly a miss. Hollywood took notice of his gifts, which were far from flash in the pan, and other filmmakers harnessed them. He anchored George Roy Hill’s adaptation of John Irving’s bestseller The World According to Garp (1982) with a surprisingly gentle and restrained performance, then let rip with motor-mouthed shenanigans as a wartime DJ in Barry Levinson’s hit Good Morning, Vietnam (1987).
He received his first Academy Award nomination for Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society (1989), as an unorthodox English teacher bucking the soul-crushing hierarchy at a private academy, and received another Oscar nod for Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991), playing an insane widower on a quixotic quest for the Holy Grail in New York. Other gems from this period, worth seeking out: his turn as a would-be survivalist in Michael Ritchie’s 1983 comedy The Survivors; Paul Mazursky’s Moscow on the Hudson (1984), as a Russian defector bewildered by change; and a pitiless PBS adaptation of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day (1986), as a salesman on the edge.
A series of lightweight hits, from Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991) to Patch Adams (1998), propelled him to the top rank of box office stars in the '90s. His two smashes were his turn as the wisecracking Genie in Disney’s musical comedy Aladdin, the number one movie of 1992, and Mrs. Doubtfire, where, hoping to get closer to his estranged kids, he cross-dressed as a British nanny, a ruse that made the film the number 2 attraction of 1993. Not laughing as much were critics, who wondered what had become of a formidable character actor in more dramatic roles. Providing an answer was Gus Van Sant’s unexpected Good Will Hunting (1997), where, as a therapist nursing his own wounds, he helped self-defeating genius Matt Damon realize his potential. A flavorful script, written by Damon and co-star Ben Affleck, and Williams' performance won Oscars for the come-from-nowhere film. Ever the kidder, the actor asked his much younger co-stars to show ID when he received his award.
The newly minted Best Supporting Actor continued to play a variety of character parts, including President Theodore Roosevelt in the popular Night at the Museum comedies (a third is due at Christmas) and Dwight Eisenhower in The Butler (2013). In 2011 he had the title role in Rajiv Joseph’s Iraq-set fantasia Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, his Broadway debut in a play, then returned to TV for The Crazy Ones last season.
Constant work, often playing characters teetering on the brink of a personal abyss, helped salve recurrent substance abuse problems and depression throughout his career. (“I went to rehab in wine country, just to keep my options open,” he joked.) “Comedy is acting out optimism,” said Williams, who gave his all for the charity effort Comic Relief from its founding in 1986. Yesterday, for reasons we cannot know, the laughter stopped, and a performer we regarded like a favorite uncle, quick with a smile and a joke, will visit no more.