On this date in 1951, actor and comedian Robin McLaurin Williams was born in Chicago, Ill., to parents Laurie McLaurin, a model, and Robert Fitzgerald Williams, a Detroit auto executive. He grew up in Bloomfield, Mich., and Marin County, Calif., with brothers Robert Todd Williams and McLaurin Smith-Williams. Williams studied political science at Claremont McKenna College (then Claremont Men’s College), but left to study theatre at a community college before receiving a full scholarship to the Juilliard School in 1973. Scoring a guest-starring role on the sitcom “Happy Days” in 1978, Williams gained instant recognition for his role as the eccentric alien Mork. The reaction from fans earned him a show of his own based on the character in 1978. Following the success of “Mork and Mindy,” which aired for four seasons, Williams was catapulted into a long and illustrious career, beginning with major movie roles in “Popeye” (1980) and “The World According to Garp” (1982). At the same time, Williams achieved success for his standup specials: “Off the Wall” (1978), “An Evening with Robin Williams” (1982) and “Robin Williams: Live at the Met” (1986). Williams’ many films included a selection of critically-acclaimed dramatic roles such as “Good Morning, Vietnam” (1987) and “Dead Poets Society” (1989). He portrayed Oliver Sacks in the 1990 drama “Awakenings,” based on Sack’s moving memoir about briefly reviving catatonic patients. Williams captured Sacks’ mannerisms so perfectly that Sacks notes some people have actually accused him of imitating Robin Williams. Other films include “The Birdcage” (1996),“The Fisher King” (1991), “Hook” (1991), “Aladdin” (1992), “Mrs. Doubtfire” (1993), “Jumanji” (1995), “Good Will Hunting” (1997), “Flubber” (1997), “Insomnia” (2002), “Night at the Museum” (2006), “Happy Feet” (2006), “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” (2009), and “The Butler” (2013). Williams starred in the Off Broadway production of “Waiting for Godot” (1988) and in the Broadway show “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” (2011).
Williams’ explosive imagination roared when directors created the space for him to improvise on set as he so often did in his frenzied standup routines. His extemporaneous rants, rapid-fire tangents, inventive impersonations and frenetic gesticulations became his trademark. Williams’ 2002 special, “Robin Williams: Live on Broadway,” sold out within 30 minutes, and helped to earn him the 13th spot on Comedy Central’s 2004 list of 100 top standup comedians of all time. Among Williams’ numerous awards are three Best Actor nominations at the Academy Awards and the Best Supporting Actor award in 1998 for his poignant performance as Will’s therapist in “Good Will Hunting.”
Beyond bringing entertainment and laughs to millions, Williams aimed to percolate provocative ideas into the public consciousness. His “War of Self-Destruction” tour in 2009 was rife with irreverent stabs at American politics, the Iraq War, religion and the papacy. “The Vatican and homosexuality; oil, water. The pope is always ‘homosexuality is an abomination.’ Timeout. . . You’re dressed like Freddie Mercury’s stunt double. Your purse is on fire and you’re surrounded by hundreds of boys and you’ve had kind of a problem in the after school area” (“Robin Williams: Live on Broadway,” 2002). Williams was raised an Episcopalian—or as he quipped, “Catholic Lite—same rituals, half the guilt.” While he technically remained an Episcopalian, Williams’ beliefs were deistic. He apparently agreed with Thomas Paine that, “my religion is to do good,” saying “the idea of compassion is powerful to me” (Interview with South China Morning Post, August 5, 2007). Williams took a critical stance on religious fundamentalism: “Fundamentalists take it to be ‘the Word,’ not translatable, not metaphorical, ‘the Word.’ In the beginning, Genesis, ‘Let there be Light.’ Could that be a metaphor for the big bang? ‘No! God just went click.’ So you’re saying we’re all descended from Adam and Eve and we’re all cousins? ‘That’s right.’ (“Robin Williams: Live on Broadway,” 2002). After battling depression and addiction for many years, Williams took his own life in 2014. He is survived by his wife Susan Schneider (2011-2014), and children, Zak, from his first marriage with Valerie Velardi (1978-1988), and Cody and Zelda, from his second marriage to Marsha Garces (1989-2008). D. 2014.
“And the next day the miracle occurred, crucifixion, resurrection, and he rose again from the dead and if he sees his shadow another 2000 years of guilt.”
—— Robin Williams, from his standup special “Robin Williams: Live on Broadway” (2002)