A comedy genius, Oscar-winning actor and TV trailblazer meets a tragic end as Garry Marshall, Terry Gilliam, Carrie Fisher and those who knew him best recall personal memories
If you were keeping an eye on Robin Williams’ Twitter feed these past few months — along with his 875,000 followers — you would have noticed nothing the least bit worrying about the 63-year-old actor-comedian’s state of mind. On June 6, he uploaded a photo of himself visiting the San Francisco Zoo, where one of the monkeys had been named after him (“What an honor!”). On July 30, he posted a plug for his December movie, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (“I hope you enjoy it!”). And then, on July 31, in what would turn out to be his last public comment, he tweeted his daughter Zelda a birthday message (“Quarter of a century old today but always my baby girl”).
leven days later, he was discovered dead at his home in Marin County, Calif.
At 11:55 a.m. on Aug. 11, a 911 call was placed from the Tiburon house Williams shared with Susan Williams, 50, his wife of three years. Williams’ assistant had found his unconscious body in a closet of the 9,000-square-foot pink mansion where he had lived since 1991. In July, Willims had checked himself into the Hazelden addiction treatment center in Minnesota to fight yet another battle in a war with dependency and depression that stretched back to the early 1980s, when Williams and John Belushi famously partied together at the Chateau Marmont (on the very day of Belushi’s overdose). There was no mystery to the cause of death: The Marin County Sheriff’s Office confirmed Aug. 12 that Williams had hanged himself with a belt.
News of his suicide whipped around the world, with CNN bumping its Iraq and Ebola coverage to present wall-to-wall Williams updates. In Hollywood, at the Expendables 3 premiere at the TCL Chinese Theatre, it was all anybody could talk about. Publicists began cautioning journalists on the red carpet against asking stars about it. In New York, attendees at The Giver premiere at the Ziegfeld Theatre were expressing their feelings more freely. Harvey Weinstein, who 17 years earlier had cast Williams opposite Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting — the role that won Williams his Oscar (out of four nominations) — did his best to keep the mood festive. “I promise you, if he were onstage, he’d want the party to continue,” he told the audience before introducing The Giver’s Jeff Bridges, who 23 years earlier co-starred with Williams in The Fisher King. “It’s difficult to be here with all these emotions,” Bridges said. “[But] I feel Robin coming in now. He says: ‘Get on with it, Bridges! On with the show!’ ”
From both coasts, a torrent of tributes came rushing over social media. Tweeted Good Will Hunting co-writer and star Ben Affleck, “He made Matt & my dreams come true.” Judd Apatow recalled how as a teenager he got an internship at HBO’s Comic Relief, Williams’ best-known charity (but hardly his only one) “just to be near him.” Russell Crowe posted a memory of a five-minute chat with Williams that “evolved into 90 mins, my sides were aching from laughter.” And Ben Stiller, Williams’ co-star in the Museum movies, seemed to grieve in real time. “A tweet cannot begin to describe the hugeness of Robin Williams heart and soul and talent. This is so sad … OK, I’ll try. I met him when I was 13 and a huge fan and he was so kind …”
It’s easy to forget how big an impact Williams had on pop culture. It’s been a while since he last carried his own comedy blockbuster (Mrs. Doubtfire, one of his biggest, was released in 1993), and his return to TV last year, in David E. Kelley’s CBS comedy The Crazy Ones, petered out after a single season. But during a 37-year career, his movies — including Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, The Birdcage, Hook, Popeye and Aladdin — grossed $3.1 billion domestically. There’s also Williams’ work on TV, where for a couple years he was the biggest sitcom star in the world. And before that as a manic, hyperliterate stand-up comedian, the first ever to fill Lincoln Center’s Metropolitan Opera House.
“I knew he’d be a star,” remembers Budd Friedman, 81, owner of the Improv comedy clubs, where in the mid-1970s, while attending Juilliard in New York, Williams started doing stand-up. “The other comics would say: ‘Why are you putting that guy on? He’s got no act.’ But he was just brilliant.” Williams, who grew up in suburban Michigan, soon headed to L.A. and quickly landed television gigs, including a 1977 revival of Laugh-In. But it was his 1978 guest spot on Happy Days, appearing as a motormouthed alien in a Richie Cunningham dream sequence, that altered TV history. Within a year, Mork From Ork would be the wacky centerpiece of the hottest show on the air, Mork & Mindy. “I will never forget the day I met him and he stood on his head in my office and pretended to drink a glass of water using his finger like a straw,” producer Garry Marshall tells THR. “That first season, I knew immediately that a three-camera format would not be enough to capture Robin. So I hired a fourth cameraman.” Within weeks, 60 million viewers were tuning to ABC on Thursday nights to listen to Williams deliver the new national catchphrase: “Nanu Nanu!”
Williams often cited Jonathan Winters as his inspiration, but really there never had been anything like him on TV. The velocity of his wit and the frenetic pace of his inventiveness was revolutionary in a medium that traditionally adhered to slower rhythms. But beneath his chaotic comedy, some suspected a dark interior life. “I’ve often felt that Robin’s blinding speed and flash of wit was an effort at concealment rather than revealing,” his friend Eric Idle told The New York Times in 2009 as Williams was embarking on what would be his final stand-up tour. After years of sobriety, he had relapsed in 2006. The personal issues cost Williams two marriages (in addition to Susan, he’s survived by ex-wives Valerie Velardi and Marsha Garces Williams) and strained his relationships with his three grown children (Zachary, 31, with Velardi; and Zelda, 25, and Cody, 19, with Garces). He was forced to suspend that last tour for heart surgery, an operation that slowed everything but his wit. “You appreciate the little things,” he said after the procedure, “like walks on the beach with a defibrillator.”
In the end, though, what friends and colleagues likely will remember about Williams won’t be his comic genius, or the inner demons that ultimately did him in, but his simple and at times even startling sweetness. “We had a little poodle,” recalls Tony Thomopoulos, who was president of ABC during the Mork & Mindy era. “My daughter remembers how he took a crab claw and was playing with the dog, making all these sounds and noises. The executives were all there, but he was playing with the kids. In some ways, he was more comfortable in kindness with the children.”