The Case of Robin Williams

A man in a funny red suit stands in contrast to an all-black screen. He has a young face, with a wild head of hair and sparkling blue eyes. A booming voice calls down to him, asking for an update from the planet Earth. The voice is Orson, and the man is Mork, an alien sent from his home planet Ork to study Earth’s inhabitants. In this episode of “Mork and Mindy,” Mork transformed himself into an old man, to provide company to Mindy’s grandmother after the loss of her best friend. Mork delivers his usual silliness and improvisation, until it’s time to look up at the invisible Orson, and recite the moral of the episode, “Everything else here gets more valuable as it gets older: wine, cheese, furniture, coins…everything except people.” 

It was moments like this that turned Robin Williams into a superstar. There was no doubt the man was comically talented, having made a name for himself on stand-up stages across southern California, but mainstream audiences fell in love with the quirky–yet sentimental–Mork.

Over the next few decades, Robin Williams entertained and inspired generations of fans. Not only was he one of the greatest comedic minds of all time, he proved to be a remarkable actor as well. He entertained in a way that no one ever has, or likely ever will. He was a shining light despite the darkness lurking in his own world, a chaotic beacon that millions looked to for warmth and a good laugh. 

So today, we’re spending our first biography episode of the year on the incomparable Robin Williams. 

FAMILY/ YOUNG LIFE

  • Born on July 21st, 1951 in Chicago, Illinois, Robin Williams was the only child of Robert and Laurie Williams. Robert held a high-ranking role in the Ford Motor Company, and Laurie was a former model and part-time actress. The two of them traveled often, leaving Robin alone for his formative years. To cope with the loneliness, Robin would create characters and voices, and bring to life a vast collection of toy soldiers.
  • Since both Robert and Laurie had a child from previous marriages, Robin also had two half siblings that he didn’t meet until he was about 10 years-old.
  • Both of Robin’s parents played a major role in his love of comedy, but he would credit his mother for being the one to show him the joy of making others laugh. She had a sight gag that she would often use at parties, that involved her placing a broken rubber band up her nose and pretending to sneeze. She would then let the rubber string dangle to great comic affect.
  • Robin would later describe his father as a good man, but a tough laugh. The two didn’t have a lot in common, but sometimes Robert would let his son stay up with him to watch Tonight starring Jack Paar. Robin remembered one time specifically when comedian Jonathan Winters appeared on the show, and made his father burst out laughing. This made Robin take notice of Winters, who would become one of his biggest influences. 
    • Winters was famous for his improvisational skills. Robin loved to recount the time he called Jonathan Winters his mentor and Jonathan said, “Please, I prefer idol.”

Clip of Jonathan Winters on Tonight with Jack Paar

  • Robin attended an all-boys school, and was on the football team. Any rebellious nature he had, he kept from his parents, showing good grades and manners.
  • But when he was 17, the Williams family moved to San Francisco. The new environment changed everything for Robin. It was here that he performed for the first time, doing an impression of a particularly animated teacher at his public high school. This quiet, nervous kid now made a remarkable discovery: when he was performing, he could be someone else, and the inhibitions of his normal personality faded away.
  • After attending an all-boys college to study political science, Robin dropped out and received a scholarship to Juilliard, where he met his long-time friend and roommate, Christopher Reeve
    • Juilliard gave Robin skills that he would use for the rest of his career. He was a skilled actor with a remarkable memory and ability to project without a microphone. He could form a connection with audiences, and he fell in love with improvisation.
  • After college, Williams moved back to California, and would perform on the street as well as in comedy clubs like The Holy City Zoo, where he started as a bartender. This would also be where he met his first wife, Valerie Velardi. The two were married for 10 years, and Robin remarried Marsha Garces in 1989. Him and Marsha were together for 21 years, and had two children: Zelda and Cody. In 2011, Robin married his third wife, Susan. 
    • Robin Williams burst onto the comedy scene, forging lasting relationships with other up-and-coming comedic acts like David Letterman and Billy Crystal. 
    • In the documentary, “Come Inside My Mind,” Letterman recounted seeing Williams’ wildly funny and energetic performances, wondering if his own comedy career would soon be over. “All I could do was hold on to a microphone for dear life,” Letterman said, “and he was levitating.”
  • Williams thrived as a performer in front of live audiences, and it was these performances that got him cast in his first TV appearance. 

FIRST PROJECTS

  • When producer George Schlatter saw one of Williams’ shows in the late 1970’s, he cast him in a special called , “The Great American Laugh Off.” Robin was a hit, and was later added as a cast member in the revival of “Laugh In.” 
  • In the mid 1970’s, Happy Days was the number one show on ABC. But, producer Gary Marshall’s son remarked that he was no longer watching it. When Marshall asked his son what would make him want to watch the show again, his son said that he wished there would be “space men” in the show. So, Marshall decided to write one in.
    •  When it was time to hold auditions for Mork, a quirky alien from the planet Ork, someone who had seen Robin Williams as a street performer suggested him for the role. Gary Marshall asked if he should really “hire a kid that stands on the sidewalk with a hat” to be on his major TV show, and the person replied, “it’s a pretty full hat.” 
    • So Robin came in to audition, and did so well, he was cast on the spot.
      • The showrunners knew immediately that Williams was perfect for the role, when they asked him to sit down and he sat on his head (a gag used in Happy Days and later Mork and Mindy). Marshall reportedly said that he was the only alien to show up for the part. 
      • The episode tested well with audiences, and Happy Days brought back Mork for another episode later on. 
    • It seemed to be a no-brainer that Mork should get his own show, so Marshall brought on actress Pam Dawber to play opposite Robin Williams, in a show about an alien that lives with a woman in present day Boulder, Colorado. The show gave Mork a new mission: he was to investigate the strange customs of the inhabitants of Earth, and report back to his superior, a faceless voice named Orson.
      • The show turned Robin Williams into a household name. He was making more money than ever, and he found a home in front of a live studio audience. 
      • Sometime during the second season was when Robin started using drugs more heavily than he had before. He was friends with John Belushi, who had visited the set of Mork and Mindy on a day when Robin’s idol Jonathan Winters was a special guest.
        • Robin visited with Belushi on the same night that he passed away from a drug overdose. The absolute shock and devastation of losing a close friend to drugs prompted Robin to get sober.
        • This is an excerpt from the biography, “Robin” by Dave Itzkoff, recounting the moment that Pam Dawber had to tell Robin about Belushi’s death.
          • Dawber waited for a discreet moment when she and Robin were walking back from the Paramount commissary: “I said, ‘I’ve got something really terrible to tell you, Robin. He went, ‘What? What?’ And I said that John Belushi was found dead last night.” Robin found it incomprehensible to hear this about someone he had seen only a few hours earlier. “He went, ‘What? I was with him last night! I was with him last night!’” Dawber said. She could see that Robin was in pain but wanted to make sure he did not ignore the larger lesson in all of this. “I said, ‘Robin, if that ever happens to you, I will find you and kill you first.’”
        • Around this time, Robin’s oldest son Zach was born. This was another incentive for Williams to stay sober.
      • After four seasons, Mork and Mindy ended. Robin closed the book on the show that made him a star, and set his sights on bigger things. He continued to perform stand-up shows, proving himself as the king of improvisation. He would perform sets that he hadn’t written or rehearsed beforehand, and he felt free to perform without the rules of a Network holding him back. 
      • The end of the show also freed Robin to focus on a newer chapter of his career: movies! Although he didn’t become a movie star right out of the gate, film would be the medium by which many would know him by in years to come. Once he found his footing as a film actor, he didn’t look back. In fact, he didn’t return to TV for nearly 3 decades.

A FEW OF HIS MOST INFLUENTIAL ROLES

  • POPEYE
    • Popeye was Robin Williams’ first feature film, and ultimately one that he would consider a disappointment. It wasn’t necessarily a critical darling, and although it didn’t flop, it never reached number one at the box office. 
    • For the next few years, Williams would star in films like, “The World According to Garp” and “Moscow on the Hudson,” but he still felt that he wasn’t winning film audiences over. However the World According to Garp gave him the chance to be in a more serious role where he had to commit to the lines. He was able to build on this and show that he had a wider range than just comedy.  
  • GOOD MORNING VIETNAM
    • It may seem crazy but there was a time when there were doubts about Robin’s abilities. The movies that he had been in before Good Morning Vietnam had not done well, and so the industry and Touchstone Pictures had their doubts. Barry Levinson, the movie’s director and fellow Comedy Stores Player member, knew that Robin would be perfect for the role. 
    • This was Robin’s first film to do well and be the number one movie at the box office. It was his big break into the movie scene and to move beyond just stand-up and television.
    • Thirty Three years ago this month Good Morning, Vietnam came to theatres. Hours of material were ad-libbed for the radio scenes.
  • DEAD POETS SOCIETY
    • The first director, Jeff Kanew, actually wanted Liam Neeson as the role of Keating but Touchstone Pictures(AKA Disney’s Jeffrey Katzenberg) wanted Robin Williams. Robin never said yes or no to taking the part of Keating but his deafening silence towards working with Kanew on the project was noticed. Touchstone gambled and had everything set for the first day of shooting with hopes that Robin would show up. He did not. Luckily after a few changes, especially to a new director, he accepted the part and things got rolling.
    • Director Peter Weir when talking about whether or not Robin could pull this role off said that although he was known as a “funny man,” he had met Robin and the role he wanted him to play would be a mixture of the “real Robin” and a little of his character from “The World According to Garp.”
    • At first it was hard for him to get into the role, but once he was given a little free reign for improvisation on teaching the boys it all clicked.
  • HOOK
    • Dante Basco who plays the role of Rufio would often discuss The Dead Poets Society and poems with Robin. He was an aspiring poet and so at the end of shooting, Robin gifted him with a limited edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. As a result he ended up opening a very successful venue in America called The Poetry Lounge.
    • On the set of Hook Robin had some funny antics and Thomas Tulak recounts one of the times that Steven Spielberg was trying to address the people on set, “He’s just about got every one calmed down and starts to give instructions, when Robin climbs to the top of the pirate ship, behind Steven, and moons everyone!” Tulak wrote, adding, “Needless to say, Steven lost control of the situation.”
    • The hardest part for Robin to play in this movie was Peter Banning. Spielberg said that it was the antithesis of who Robin was.
genie inspiration.jpg
  • ALADDIN
    • At this time Robin Williams had become a well known star and Ron Clements and John Musker specifically wrote the role of Genie for Robin. They were incredibly inspired by a short called Back to Neverland, where Robin is taken around the world of DIsney Animation by Walter Cronkite and is taken to the animated world of Peter Pan specifically. In order to pay respect and recall back to this short, Musker and Clements had animators draw Genie at the end of the movie wearing the same yellow wild shirt and Goofy hat that he does in the beginning of Back to Neverland.
    • Robin at first did not want the part because he felt that the Disney contract was too strict. He finally agreed to do the film because Katzenberg convinced him to do it for his young kids so they could see their dad in something. He did however have some stipulations that he gave Disney. Some of these include: Genie could not be in more than 25% of the poster image, they couldn’t use his name or voice for marketing the movie, and that no happy meal toys be made of Genie. One of his goals was to not overshadow the movie that he had committed to first with Barry Levinson called “Toys.” Sadly “Toys” would bomb at the box office and Disney would break their promises of using his celebrity to promote Aladdin. This would lead to his anger at the studio and reason for not appearing in The Return of Jafar.
    • Fortunately for us however Robin had free reign in this feature and reportedly recorded 16 hours of riffing which the film cut down and brilliantly animated for the film.
  • MRS. DOUBTFIRE
    • When Joe Roth took over for Disney he gave a formal apology from Disney to Robin. This allowed Mrs. Doubtfire to be greenlit. 
    • Anne Fine the author of the book (Alias Madame Doubtfire) that the film is based on, pictured Warren Beatty as the lead. How different the movie would have been!
    • True to form 2-3 cameras had to be kept on Robin as he moved about freely during filming!
    • Robin wanted to make sure that his costume for Mrs. Doubtfire worked and so therefore he tested it in a few different ways. One way he did this was to wear it to an adult store to buy intimate objects. It worked and it took the clerk quite a while to finally figure out that it was actually Robin! The other test came when they were casting Matthew Lawrence and Mara Wilson as the children. They wanted to get the kids’ true reactions.
      • Lisa Jakub who played the eldest daughter said about the movie that “I have had so many people come up to me and want to talk about this because it was so meaningful to them and really helped them get through their parents’ divorce,” said Jakub. “This idea that this might not be the way that you thought your life was going to be, that doesn’t mean that it’s bad or wrong. You’re going to be okay. That’s a really powerful message.”
    • There were reports that multiple cuts of the movie were made, one for PG, PG-13, R, and even NC-17 depending on what Robin ad-libbed. The final cut they chose was the PG-13, yet I know that lots of kids were still allowed to watch it!
      • There were two scenes that were also cut from the film for being “too heartbreaking.” We watched them and…yeah, we agree.  You can find them HERE.
  • JUMANJI
    • The director Joe Johnston said that TriStar pictures told them that they would make the movie if they could get Robin to be in it. The first script was passed by Robin and so the team spent an entire night revising the script. Luckily this next screenplay was accepted and he said yes!
    • Young 12 year old Bradley Pierce had to have make-up put on for 3 hours a day to become the monkey boy. Since Robin had to go through a similar time, recently being made up as Mrs. Doubtfire, he kindly kept Bradley company and gave advice as he sat in the chair.
    • Bonnie Hunt said of the movie “Kids always remember the first movie that makes their hearts pound. Then that feeling becomes nostalgic, and you want to revisit it and share it with a new generation.”
      • And boy was it a hit, winning $262.8 million worldwide.
  • GOOD WILL HUNTING
    • Good Will Hunting gave Robin Williams his only Academy Award, for the role of Sean McGuire. Although Williams had proved he was a strong dramatic actor (hence Juilliard) this role really proved his range. 
    • It is now one of his best-known performances, and fans of the movie often take trips to the public bench in Boston, where one of the film’s most iconic scenes takes place.
    • In one scene, Williams improvised a line about his late wife farting in her sleep. The story made Matt Damon and Williams both break into laughter, and if you look closely, you can see the camera shaking because the cameraman was laughing as well!
    • Robin says that the quietest person in the room is the one to look out for. The line in Good Will Hunting where his character grabs Damon by the throat and says I will end you came from when Robin saw a large guy at a bar picking on a smaller dude and the smaller dude was quiet until he had enough. He pointed and said “I will end you” and the larger guy walked away. 
  • PATCH ADAMS
    • Patch Adams was a way to show Robin’s care for children, especially those fighting cancer or other ailments. It was a way to show that laughter really can be the best medicine. 
    • Cameron Brooke Stanley was only 7 year old, undergoing treatment for her kidney in real life, and cast with a speaking role. She remembers Robin fondly as he cared for the children’s comfort and well-being first and foremost. As of 2014 she was 22 and living in San Jose free of cancer.
    • Patch Adams, after hearing of Robin’s passing, had this to say to Time Magazine, “I’m enormously grateful for his wonderful performance of my early life, which has allowed the Gesundheit Institute to continue and expand our work. We extend our blessings to his family and friends in this moment of sadness. Thank you for all you’ve given this world, Robin. Thank you my friend.”
  • His last roles were; “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb,” and a voice part in “Absolutely Anything.”

CONTRIBUTIONS TO AMERICAN CULTURE

  • When performing, Robin had a lot of energy and would move freely about in the space that he was given. He was very unpredictable. Due to this, he is the reason that a fourth camera was brought into the sitcom format during Mork and Mindy. They brought it in specifically to capture Robin, because he was not hitting his marks!
  • Robin Williams did lots of charity work, he helped where he could. Here are just a few organizations that he put his time, money, and talents towards.
    • You may remember him doing ads for St. Jude’s Hospital. We would often see them at the theatre before they played the trailers! He was a big supporter and would spend whatever time he could to visit with the children and families.
    • Since he was a close and personal friend with Christopher Reeve he committed 4 years of his life on the Board of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. He went to several of the fundraising events and made sure to talk to as many people as he could. The foundation raises money for research towards spinal cord injuries. Robin would financially support this foundation as much as he could.
    • Comic Relief was a special telethon organized by Bob Zmuda that had Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, and Robin Williams as the hosts. It’s purpose was to raise money and awareness to homelessness and health care services. The three of them would host a total of 8 of the telethons starting in 1986.
    • He was always willing to go and visit the soldiers overseas with many performances over his 12 years of involvement with the USO. He would pose for so many pictures with troops that he would often have to be practically dragged away from them. 

AWARDS

Here is a list of some of the awards that Robin Williams won throughout his career

  • Cecil B. DeMille Award in 2005
  • Golden Globe winner for his roles in: Mrs. Doubtfire, Aladdin, The Fisher King, Good Morning Vietnam, and Mork and Mindy
  • Emmy Winner for roles in: 
    • ABC Presents: A Royal Gala
    • Carol, Carol, Whoopi and Robin
  • Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films for his roles in One Hour Photo and Aladdin
  • American Comedy Awards: Mrs. Doubtfire, Comic Relief III, Comic Relief ‘87, Good Morning Vietnam, Robin Williams Live at the Met
    • In 1988 and ‘89 he won Funniest Male Stand-Up Comic and in 89 he also won Funniest Male Performer of the Year
  • He won these along with several others and many more nominations! He even won a few Grammy’s like one for the soundtrack for Good Morning Vietnam.

HIS DEATH AND LEWY BODY DEMENTIA 

  • Robin Williams had an unparalleled mind. He relied on his ability to think on his feet, as well as his extraordinary memory that he inherited from his dad. Near the end of his career, Robin was still getting steady work. He starred in a sitcom called “The Crazy Ones,” and made appearances in all three of the “Night at the Museum” films.
  • But despite outward appearance, Robin and his wife Susan noticed something was wrong. In October of 2013, around the time of their two year anniversary, Williams started experiencing what his wife would call, “a firestorm of symptoms.” Among these were paranoia and memory loss. For months there were no answers on what could be causing these issues. Susan Schnieder Williams remembers her husband calling her while he filmed the final “Night at the Museum” movie. He was having a panic attack because he couldn’t remember his lines. A month later, he was given the devastating diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.
  • Symptoms would change and worsen as time went on. Robin was confused and distraught. He seemed to be losing his ability to judge depth, and at times he would get caught in a frozen stance, unable to break out of it.
  • On August 11, 2014, Williams’ assistant found the comedian unresponsive in his home. He had died of an apparent suicide. 
    • The news of Robin Williams’ death shook his fans from all over the world. It was an unbelievable loss. Robin Williams was the kind of person that seemed untouchable, invincible.
    • President Obama said of his death: “Robin Williams was an airman, a doctor, a genie, a nanny, a president, a professor, a bangarang Peter Pan, and everything in between. But he was one of a kind. He arrived in our lives as an alien — but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit. He made us laugh. He made us cry. He gave his immeasurable talent freely and generously to those who needed it most — from our troops stationed abroad to the marginalized on our own streets. The Obama family offers our condolences to Robin’s family, his friends, and everyone who found their voice and their verse thanks to Robin Williams.”
    • His manner of death sparked many discussions on mental illness, more specifically depression. The incident seemed to highlight the importance of seeking help, and destigmatizing mental illness. 
  • In the fall of 2016, a neurology journal published an essay by Susan Schneider Williams called, “The Terrorist Inside my Husband’s Brain.” Which we will link to in the blog. https://n.neurology.org/content/87/13/1308
  • It was revealed that after Williams’ autopsy, medical professionals discovered Lewey Bodies on his brain. These are lumps of protein known to cause dementia. Robin Williams had a unique and advanced case of Lewey Body Syndrome (LBD) that was likely a major factor in his suicide.
    • In the essay she wrote: “I will never know the true depth of his suffering, nor just how hard he was fighting. But from where I stood, I saw the bravest man in the world playing the hardest role of his life.”
    • Susan Schneider has continued to educate the public about the little known brain disease that affects about 1.4 million Americans.

In her essay, Robin Williams’ wife wrote, “Robin is and will always be a larger-than-life spirit who was inside the body of a normal man with a human brain.”

Robin Williams was truly remarkable. There was something in him that we all see in ourselves, yet he was utterly unique. He spoke to us, made us laugh, made us cry, and made us laugh again. On stage, he was lightning personified, striking in unpredictably amusing ways. In life, he was quiet, loving, and at times, lonely. He shared with the world, the magic of his inextinguishable spark. And although he may be gone, his light will never leave us. 


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