This is going to be tough. I’ve had the great fortune, followed by genuine sadness, in the past to see a young talent break through, shine brightly and then die. Two people that come to mind are River Phoenix and Heath Ledger. Both great talents and both taken way too soon. The fact that I have been entertained by Robin Williams for almost four decades only makes the pain of his passing hurt more. Williams died earlier today, with the cause of death pointing toward suicide. He was 63.
I can remember Williams’ appearance on “Happy Days,” where he first gave life to Mork, the alien from the planet Ork. With his brightly colored suspenders and soon to be catchphrase “Nanu nanu,” Williams, like Mork, invaded our televisions and made them his own. I can still remember gathering at my friend Scott Gilbert’s house, just after my 18th birthday, with other friends to watch the debut of the new comedy “Mork and Mindy.” I can still remember the laughter, which peeled from the living room throughout the house. The show, and Williams, were such an instant hit that within a few weeks the movie theatre I was working at brought back an R-rated sketch comedy called “Can I Do It ‘Til I Need Glasses,” trumpeting in the ads that the film “starred” Robin “Mork” Williams. Williams really only had two brief appearances in the film, but that fact wasn’t enough to keep people from paying their money and selling out the opening weekend performances.
In 1980, the studios came calling properly, with Williams playing the title role in Robert Altman’s “Popeye.” Two years later, he showed he was much more than a funny man when he took the lead in the film version of John Irving’s classic novel “The World According to Garp.” He continued filling theatres in the 80s with a series of comedies, including “The Survivors,” “The Best of Times” and “Club Paradise.” In 1987, he teamed up with director Barry Levinson and earned his first Academy Award nomination (for Best Actor) for his role as Airman Adrien Cronauer in “Good Morning, Vietnam.”
Oscar nomination number two came in 1989 for the Peter Weir directed “Dead Poets Society.” He starred opposite Robert DeNiro in Penny Marshall’s “Awakenings” and alongside Kenneth Brannagh and Emma Thompson in “Dead Again.” He even managed a small cameo in his friend Bobcat Goldthwait’s film “Shakes the Clown.”
1991 saw him star as the grown up Peter Banning in Steven Spielberg’s “Hook.” That same year he earned Oscar nod number three opposite Jeff Bridges in “The Fisher King.” The next year he exploded (literally) as the voice of the genie in the animated Disney hit “Aladdin,” So acclaimed was this performance that the Hollywood Foreign Press presented Williams with a special award for his work. He later amazed audiences when he donned a fake bosom and gray wig to portray everyone’s favorite housekeeper, “Mrs. Doubtfire.” During this time he would also show up in small cameo roles in films like “Shakes the Clown” and “To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar.” In 1996 he co-starred with Nathan Lane in Mike Nichol’s “The Birdcage” and as a young man who grows up too fast in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Jack.” The next year saw him co-star opposite two young actors who found work by writing their own script. The writer/actors were Ben Affleck and Matt Damon and Williams received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his work in the duo’s “Good Will Hunting,” which also won Affleck and Damon an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
Williams continued working in a mixture of comedies and dramas, including “Patch Adams,” “Bicentennial Man,” “One Hour Photo” and “Insomnia.” He also contributed his voice to such popular animated films as “Robots” and “Happy Feet.” He appeared as President Theodore Roosevelt in “Night at the Museum” and it’s sequel (and had just completed work for the third installment). He returned to episodic television last year opposite Sarah Michelle Gellar in the CBS series “The Crazy Ones,” which was recently canceled. Last year he also appeared as President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the critically acclaimed film “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” This past May he starred opposite Mila Kunis and Peter Dinklage as a man who is mistakenly told he has 90 minutes to live in “The Angriest Man in Brooklyn.” The Internet Movie Data Base lists three remaining projects (including the third “Museum” film) to be released.
I’ve tried my best to sum up the highlights of a thirty-six year career in these past six paragraphs. I’ve hit the high notes of a career that also had low times. Williams, along with Robert DeNiro, were with the late John Belushi the night the comedian overdosed and died, and that experience supposedly scarred Williams straight for quite a while. He recently had a couple of return trips to rehab, which proves nothing except that he was human. But I’ve chosen to remember the best about Robert Williams. To me he will always be the young man in the bright suspenders, standing on his head on the closest chair and exploring the world with the wide eyes of a child. He had so much to learn, and so much to teach us. Good night, Robin. God bless you!