Monday, August 11, 2014

RIP Robin Williams (1951 - 2014)

The Marin County (CA) Sheriff's Department released a statement this afternoon announcing that Academy Award-winning actor and comedian Robin Williams had died around noon today, from asphyxiation from apparent suicide. He was 63.

Williams was born in Chicago, Illinois to a former model and a senior executive of the Ford Motor Company. He was a shy child, but became interested in acting and attended the prestigious Juilliard in 1973, where he was accepted into the Advanced Program alongside Christopher Reeve. He earned his first big break on Happy Days, playing a goofy alien named Mork in two episodes. The character was such a hit that Williams was given his own spinoff show, Mork & Mindy (1978-82), that made him a household name in the 1980s. He used his acting career to launch a hugely successful stand-up comedy career as well, becoming famous for his scattershot improv.

Naturally, his success in these areas paved the way for a largely successful film career. He appeared early on in hits such as Popeye (1980) and The World According to Garp (1982). But Williams truly made a name for himself in Barry Levinson's biting war comedy Good Morning Vietnam (1987), which earned Williams an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. From there, he starred in a string of major movies, ranging from nutty comedies like Hook (1991) and Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) to heartwarming dramas like Dead Poets Society (1989) and Good Will Hunting (1997), the latter of which he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for. Though he had a number of critical and commercial misfires, he was never out of demand, finding success on the big screen as Theodore Roosevelt in the Night at the Museum films and on the small screen with his recent CBS sitcom The Crazy Ones (which, despite debuting to big numbers, fell off in viewership and was ultimately cancelled after one season).

If there's one thing that Williams never received enough credit for as an actor, it was for his willingness to challenge himself in different genres. He was just as adept at drama as he was at comedy, and experimented in everything from animated voice-overs to thriller and horror films, such as One Hour Photo (2002) or his chilling turn in Insomnia (2002). He worked with a number of esteemed filmmakers over his career, including Steven Spielberg, Barbara Streisand, Terry Gilliam, Gus Van Sant, Christopher Nolan, Barry Levinson, Woody Allen, and Peter Weir. In addition to film and television, he also performed in several stage productions, including a Lincoln Center production of Waiting for Godot with Steve Martin in 1988 and the Broadway production of Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo in 2011, his Broadway debut. He was always willing to push himself as an artist, to better himself and his craft.

Despite his successes, he struggled in his personal life. In the 1980s, he underwent a bitter divorce with his first wife, Valerie Velardi, after becoming infected with herpes from an extramarital affair. He also developed a severe cocaine addiction during the 1970s and 1980s, and though he quit shortly after the death of his friend John Belushi, it may have caused heart complications he suffered from later in life. In recent years, he had checked himself into rehab for substance abuse several times, having relapsed. Still, he was well-known for his humanitarianism, particularly in his support for St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital.

My personal favorite memory of Williams is, like most children of the late 1980s/early 1990s, is his performance as the Genie in Disney's 1992 animated hit Aladdin. Williams imbued Genie with heart, soul, and, most importantly, manic energy that was positively infectious. It was perhaps the most iconic performance of his career, one that captured every side of his screen persona and encapsulated his entire acting career. But I also have a deep fondness for his performances in Dead Poets Society, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Mork & Mindy.

He is survived by his wife Susan Schneider and three children. His presence and talent will be deeply missed in the film and comedy communities.

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