Williams, Robin (1952—)

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Williams, Robin (1952—)

With his manic versatility, comedic genius Robin Williams has defined comedy for the last three decades of the twentieth century. Whether expressing himself as a stand-up comic or an animated genie or a cross-dressing nanny, he is without equal in the field of American comedy. Much more than a comedian, however, some of his finest work has been in dramatic film roles to which he has brought humanity and warmth to a cast of characters ranging from a crazed widower in The Fisher King (1991) to a sad but optimistic psychiatrist in 1997's Good Will Hunting, which garnered an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Williams was born July 21, 1952, in Chicago, Illinois, to a father who was a Ford company executive and a mother who was a former model engaged in charity work. While both parents had sons by previous marriages, Williams essentially grew up as an only child. In interviews, he has described his childhood as lonely and himself as shy and chubby. His father was stern and distant, and his mother was charming and busy. While Williams was close to his mother, she was often absent, leaving him to roam their forty-room home for diversion. He turned to humor as a way to attract attention. His interest in comedy was aroused by hours spent in front of the television, and he was particularly enthralled by late-night shows where he discovered his idol, Jonathan Winters, another comic who consistently pushes the envelope.

In 1967 Williams's family moved to Tiburon, an affluent suburb of San Francisco. In the less inhibited atmosphere in California, Williams blossomed. When his father steered him toward a career in business, Williams rebelled. His innate comedic skills were honed in college, but he chose to leave two schools without finishing. He then entered the prestigious Juilliard School in New York on a scholarship, where he roomed with actor Christopher Reeve, who remains a close friend. While the other students found Williams's off-the-wall antics hilarious, his professors were unsure of how to handle such frenetic humor. Leaving Juilliard without graduating, Williams returned to California and appeared in comedy clubs such as the Improv and the Comedy Store.

By the mid-1970s, Williams had guest-starred on several television shows including Saturday Night Live, Laugh-In, and The Richard Pryor Show. In 1977, a guest appearance on Happy Days as the alien Mork from the planet Ork propelled him to stardom. Williams reportedly won the role of Mork by showing up at his audition in rainbow suspenders and standing on his head when asked to sit like an alien. The appearance was so successful that the character of Mork was given his own show, Mork and Mindy (1978-1982), which costarred Pam Dawber as the earthling who took in the stranded alien. In retrospect, it is inconceivable that anyone else could have played Mork with his zany innocence. Each week, the television audience discovered their own planet through Mork's reports to Ork leader Orson at show's end. Even though the characters of Mork and Mindy predictably fell in love and married, the birth of their first child was anything but predictable: Jonathan Winters as Mearth, who aged backward, was the surprising result of this intergalactic coupling. Even though Williams had so much control over the content of the show that it became known informally as "The Robin Williams Show," he often felt stifled by the confines of network television as a medium. Williams said in a 1998 TV Guide interview that he found salvation in his HBO specials that aired without censorship, giving him freedom to expand as a comic and solidify his position as a top-notch performer.

In 1980 Williams lent his talent to the big screen with Popeye, based on the heavily muscled, spinach-eating sailor from the comic strip of the same name. It was a disappointing debut. His performance in The World According to Garp in 1982 was better received, but it was evident that Williams's vast talents were not being properly utilized outside of television. He managed to hit his stride with Moscow on the Hudson in 1984, playing a Russian defector. Perhaps the character who came closest to his own personality was that of an outrageous disc jockey in 1987's Good Morning, Vietnam, a role which earned him his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

Drawing on his cross-generational appeal, Williams has appeared in a series of films aimed at family audiences, such as the role of Peter Pan in Hook in 1991. Although it was criticized by certain reviewers, the role allowed Williams to display his own split person-ality—that of the child who never quite grew up in the body of an adult burdened by the everyday cares of his world. Williams followed Hook with a delightful performance as the voice of Batty Koda in the animated environmental film Fern Gully … The Last Rain Forest, but nowhere was the enormity of Williams's comedic range more evident than in Disney's Aladdin in 1992. As Genie, he managed to steal the show. Refusing to be confined by his large-chested blue blob of a body, Williams's Genie metamorphosed by turns into a Scotsman, a dog, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ed Sullivan, Groucho Marx, a waiter, a rabbit, a dinosaur, William F. Buckley Jr., Robert De Niro, a stewardess, a sheep, Pinocchio, Sebastian from The Little Mermaid, Arsenio Hall, Walter Brennan, Ethel Merman, Rodney Dangerfield, Jack Nicholson, and a one-man band. There was talk of an unheard-of Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for the portrayal of an animated character. Williams did, in fact, win a special Golden Globe award for his vocal work in Aladdin.

Even though Toys (1992) received little attention, Williams followed it up with the blockbuster Mrs. Doubtfire, in which he played the estranged husband of Sally Field and cross-dressed as a nanny in order to remain close to his three children. Jumanji (1995), a saga of characters trapped inside a board game, demonstrated a darker side to Williams. He finally came to terms with Disney and reprised the role of the genie in the straight-to-video Aladdin and the King of Thieves in 1996. Williams's zany side was again much in evidence in 1997's Flubber, a remake of the Disney classic The Absent Minded Professor. Before Flubber, Williams had returned to adult comedy with his uproarious portrayal of a gay father whose son is about to be married in The Birdcage (1996).

While comedy is the milieu in which Williams excels, his dramatic abilities have also won critical acclaim. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of John Keating, a teacher at a conservative prep school who attempts to open the eyes of his students to the world of poetry and dreams in Dead Poet's Society in 1989. The role of Parry in The Fisher King (1991) introduced a side to Williams that stunned audiences and critics alike. After Parry's wife is murdered in a random shooting at a restaurant, he descends into insanity from which he only occasionally emerges to search for his personal holy grail with the help of co-star Jeff Bridges. The role of Dr. Malcolm Sayer, a dedicated physician who temporarily restores life to catatonic patients, in Awakenings again demonstrated Williams's enormous versatility. In 1997, Williams won his Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in the Matt Damon/Ben Affleck film Good Will Hunting, leading Damon's Will Hunting to awkward acceptance of his own reality and mathematical genius. Williams followed that success with back-to-back roles in What Dreams May Come and Patch Adams in 1998. Afterward, he expressed a desire to modify his busy schedule and perhaps return to a weekly series.

Personally, Williams has had highs and lows. As a young performer, he was well-known for his heavy consumption of drugs and alcohol. He was forced to reexamine his life when his friend and fellow comic John Belushi died after spending an evening with Williams in the pursuit of nirvana. Another setback occurred when his first marriage fell apart amid tabloid reports that he had left his wife for his son Zachery's nanny. Williams insisted that the marriage was over before he became involved with Marsha Gracos, whom he subsequently married. Their wedding rings are engraved with wolves to signify their intention to mate for life; they have two children: Zelda and Cody. Along with friends Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg, Williams has labored diligently for "Comic Relief," an annual benefit for the homeless.

—Elizabeth Purdy

Further Reading:

Corliss, Richard. "Aladdin's Magic." Time. November 9, 1992, 74.

David, Jay. The Life and Humor of Robin Williams: A Biography. New York, William Morrow, 1999.

Dougan, Andy Y. Robin Williams. New York, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1998.

Weeks, Janet. "Face to Face with Robin Williams." TV Guide. November 14-20, 1998.

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Williams, Robin (1952—)

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