Comedian and actor Robin Williams has lost his lifelong battle with his own inner demons. The voice of the Genie in Disney’s “Aladdin” was found dead today in his California home of an apparent suicide. Williams’ acting and stand up was often characterized as manic, which may have been due to his battles with his own personality. It was no secret that Williams battled depression for most of his life. Early in his career this led to substance abuse, a hurdle he eventually overcame. It’s a shame that what fueled the comedy he used to bring joy into so many lives is probably what also took his life in the end.
I was first introduced to Williams through the “Mork & Mindy” television show in which Williams portrayed an alien from the planet Ork who crash landed on Earth and came to live with a single woman named Mindy. The series was a spin-off of the popular show “Happy Days” where Williams originated the character of Mork. Williams’ manic nature made him seem as if he really were an alien from another planet. For a time his alien greeting “Nanu nanu” became a cultural maker.
Williams skyrocketed to fame from the television show and gained a reputation as an outrageous stand-up comedian with a succession of several successful stand-up films on HBO. During the 1970s and early 80s he struggled with a cocaine habit that he made widely public in a surprisingly humorous way in his stand-up special “Robin Williams: At the Met” (1986). In it, he claimed the birth of his son had prompted him to clean up.
Despite his meteoric rise to celebrity through comedy, Williams set out in a more dramatic direction with his film career. Tapped to play Popeye in Robert Altman’s musical comedy flop “Popeye” (1980) based on the once popular cartoon series, Williams didn’t let bad notices slow him down. He soon took lead roles in the adaptation of John Irving’s “The World According to Garp” (1982), and in the surprisingly somber look at Russian to American defection “Moscow on the Hudson” (1984). He took some roles in some lesser comedy effortsduring that decade; but with his role as real life war radio DJ Adrian Cronauer in the movie “Good Morning, Vietnam” (1987), he found the perfect mixture of comedy and drama.
His performance as Cronauer earned him his first of four Academy Award nominations for acting. He would later be nominated for his leading roles in the movies “Dead Poets Society” (1990) and “The Fisher King” (1992). He would finally win an Oscar for his supporting role as a psychologist who helps an M.I.T. janitor embrace his gift for mathematics in the movie “Good Will Hunting”. His performance as Dr. Malcolm Sayer, a character loosely based on Dr. Oliver Sacks who developed a treatment that temporarily relieved Parkinsons patients, in the movie “Awakenings” (1990), was also highly lauded.
During the 90s, Williams hit probably his biggest cinematic success with a series of family oriented movies. “Mrs. Doubtfire” (1993) found the actor dressing up like a woman to spend more time with his children after a bitter divorce. “Jumanji” (1995) depicted him as a man trapped in a magical board game as a child only to find himself released when another set of kids unearth the dangerous game. But it was his voice work as the Genie in Disney’s follow-up to the extremely successful “Beauty and the Beast”, “Aladdin” (1992) that solidified Williams as family box office gold.
In more recent years, Williams’ film output has taken a plunge in terms of quality with hits like “Happy Feet” (2006), “Night at the Museum” (2006) and “Old Dogs” (2009) seeming harder to come by. He had found some success with more independent oriented films, however, dropping his family image for some more sinister roles in movies like Mark Romanek’s “One Hour Photo” (2002), Christopher Nolan’s remake “Insomnia” (2002), Omar Naim’s “The Final Cut” (2004), Armistead Maupin’s “The Night Listener” (2005), and Bobcat Goldthwait’s “World’s Greatest Dad” (2009).
Williams has never slowed down. He also participated in the sequels “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” (2009) and “Happy Feet Too” (2011). He returned to television in the CBS comedy series “The Crazy Ones” for the 2013-2014 television season and the coming year will see the release of four more projects, including a third “Night at the Museum” installment later this year.
While certainly not the first comedian to make the leap from comedy to drama, Williams’ continued success as a dramatic actor has done wonders in allowing Hollywood to see comedians as more rounded performers, capable of providing as much power dramatically as they are capable of producing in the form of laughs comedically. His comedic style was not always universally loved, but his dramatic output is hard to argue against. His influence as an artist was even greater. He contributed a great deal to charity work including hosting, with Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg, the “Comic Relief” comedy concert series to support the homeless. The loss of this powerful artist will be felt by the world. Williams was 63.