What the Hell Happened to Robin Williams?

Robin Williams 2014

Note: This article was written prior to Robin Williams’ death on August 11, 2014.  At present, Williams’ death is believed to be suicide.  The purpose of this article is to review Williams’ career as an entertainer.  My sympathy goes out to Williams’ friends and family.  I am personally saddened by his passing.  I will update this article as information becomes available.  In the meanwhile, please view this as a celebration of William’s work.

At the peak of his career, Robin Williams was one of the most sought-after actors in Hollywood. He made the extremely rare transition from comedian to dramatic actor. What’s more, he was able to alternate between popular comedies and dramatic roles while winning awards for both. But eventually, Williams’ popularity waned. While Williams remains busy, his last starring role in a mainstream movie was in 2009.

What the hell happened?

williams and reeve

Williams was a quiet kid who came out of his shell when he became involved in his high school drama department.  In 1973, at the age of 22, Williams was one of only twenty students accepted into the Julliard School.  He and Christopher Reeve were the only two students accepted by John Houseman into the Advanced Program at the school that year.  According to Williams, Reeve showed him kindness that he would one day repay.  When asked for his favorite memory of Reeve, Williams replied:

“Him being such a great friend to me at Juillard, literally feeding me because I don’t think I literally had money for food or my student loan hadn’t come in yet, and he would share his food with me.  And then later after the accident, just seeing him beaming and just, seeing what he meant to so many people.”


williams - laugh in

Williams left Julliard in 1976.  In 1977, he started appearing on TV shows like Laugh-In (pictured) and Eight is Enough.  He was a regular on the Richard Pryor Show which last only four episodes.  Here’s a clip:

And here is a clip of Williams’ stand-up from 1977:

williams - happy days

Williams had a guest spot on the popular 50’s sit-com, Happy Days.  Williams played an alien named Mork who came to Earth looking for a human specimen.  He chose Richie Cunningham to take back to his home planet of Ork.  It fell to the Fonz to save his friend from a bizarre alien abduction.  In the end, the entire episode turned out to be a dream.

The story goes that Williams was cast as Mork after meeting with producer Gary Marshall.  Marshall asked Williams to take a seat and Williams immediately sat on his head.  Marshall later commented that Williams was the only alien to audition for the role.

williams - mork and mindy

Williams’ guest spot on Happy Days was popular enough for Marshall to launch a spin-off show, Mork and Mindy in 1978.

(This was an exceptionally common practice at the time.  Happy Days was a spin-off from Love American Style.    In addition to Mork and Mindy, Happy Days launched six other shows: Laverne & Shirley, Blansky’s Beauties, Out of the Blue, Joanie Loves Chachi, and two cartoons.)

The new show had Mork landing on Earth in the present day of the 70s.  Instead of abducting a human specimen, Mork’s mission was to study humans and report back to his boss on Ork.  Mork was taken in by the beautiful and kind-hearted Mindy played by Pam Dawber.  Hi-jinks ensued.

There was an episode in which the character of Mork met Robin Williams the comedian.  Williams portrayed himself as a desperately needy person who could never say “no” to anyone.  He was extremely sad and vulnerable.

The Mork character was extremely popular with kids.  It launched a slew of Mork-themed merchandise.  Williams’ grinning face was everywhere.  Speaking as a kid who was part of the show’s target demographic, I loved the broad humor.  I even went as Mork for Halloween one year.

mork_costume

The pictures isn’t of me.  But I had this exact costume right down to the creepy Williams mask.  Although I didn’t wear the mask.  Those things were extremely uncomfortable.  And what do you need the mask for?  Batman, sure.  But Mork?  Especially when they put his face on your chest as well.  What was the point of that?  It’s not like Mork had a picture of his face (along with his name and catch phrase) on his chest.

tdy-130412-ent-jonathan-winters-tease.380

Mork and Mindy ran through 1982.  In the final season, a number of gimmicks were used to try to save the show.  Mork and Mindy got married and had a son.  Because of his alien physiology, their son aged backwards which allowed them to cast comedy legend Jonathan Winters as a child in the body of an old man.

The gimmicks did not result in increased ratings.  The show ended on a cliff-hanger.  In the first two parts of a three-part story, Mindy’s apartment was destroyed and the family was on the run from a hostile alien.  The conclusion to the story was never filmed.

The final episode of the show to air was filmed before the cliff-hanger and did not resolve the dangling plot thread – much to the chagrin this particular Mork and Mindy fan.  (I spent years trying to figure out whether or not I had missed the conclusion.  Turns out, I hadn’t.)

32 years later, here’s a clip of Williams and Dawber reflecting on Mork and Mindy.

Next: Popeye and The World According to Garp

Posted on April 25, 2013, in Movies, What the Hell Happened?, WTHH Actor and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 203 Comments.

  1. if anyone doubts his acting ability they should watch awakingis he does well without going over the top oscar snub

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  2. With The Fisher King, Robin Williams shrugged off the burden of genius:

    http://thedissolve.com/features/exposition/709-with-the-fisher-king-robin-williams-shrugged-off-t/

    by Keith Phipps

    For a good stretch of his career, the word “genius” trailed Robin Williams, and not always to his benefit. In the introduction to a long 1988 interview with Williams in Rolling Stone, Bill Zehme wrote that the then-new Barry Levinson film Good Morning, Vietnam was “being hailed as the first big-screen project properly suited to the comedian’s genius.” In one sense, those doing the hailing were correct. Inspired by the war experiences of DJ Adrian Cronauer, the film’s on-air segments allowed Williams to drop the inspired, improvised routines that first made him famous as a stand-up into the middle of a dramatic story. It wasn’t the first time Williams had proven himself as a dramatic actor. The Juilliard-trained Williams’ dramatic abilities had been evident since The World According To Garp. Nor was it the first time he’d been able to draw on his improv skills, which had been the backbone of his star-making turn on Mork & Mindy. Yet there’s another side to that acclaim, a suggestion that Williams’ skills made him a freak, burdened with a talent that rendered him unsuitable for most roles. What made him a genius in nightclubs made him unconvincing as an ordinary person—or made it seem that when he did play an ordinary person, he was wasting his gifts.

    Williams’ best work as an actor suggested another option, synthesizing his faster-than-thought comedic gifts with soulful character work. It would be most evident in the years after Good Morning, Vietnam made him a bankable star, one whose successful films gave him the freedom to pick and choose his projects. He often chose well. Like Good Morning, Vietnam, his next big hit, Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society, found room for comedic asides alongside the drama. But Williams was just as good in the Penny Marshall-directed Awakenings, which forced him to bottle up his free-associative tendencies, and especially in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, in which he plays a man for whom flight into fantasy serves as both an escape and a trap.

    Williams’ filmography is littered with the forgettable (The Big Wedding) and the regrettable (Old Dogs). He had a habit of using his skills as a crutch, as in a painful improv sequence in the 2006 comedy RV that found him busting out a decades-out-of-date b-boy impression, or relying on a wistful man-child twinkle (e.g. Hook). But it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing Williams’ best roles, and The Fisher King easily ranks among them. I’m not sure that’s why it was the first Williams movie I thought of after hearing about his death, however. It’s often unwise and irrelevant to connect actors to the roles they play, and yet something about Williams’ suicide has invited it. He often played men struggling with darkness, sometimes without success, frequently men who used verbal agility and unbridled energy as weapons in the fight. Few movies put that struggle to the fore as prominently as The Fisher King.

    Williams plays Parry, a homeless man who happens upon Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), a disgraced morning shock-jock bottoming out in the streets of New York, as a pair of thugs prepare to burn him alive. Though already on the verge of suicide, having tied weights his ankles and preparing to jump in the water, Jack welcomes the rescue and soon finds himself drawn into Parry’s rich fantasy world. Fashioning himself a modern knight, and receiving instruction from invisible little people, Parry is on a quest to retrieve the Holy Grail, which, having spotted it in an architectural magazine while following the little people’s instructions, he knows to be located in the library of a Manhattan mansion.

    Written by Richard LaGravenese, The Fisher King gets its title from a medieval story about a wounded king and the search for the Grail, which will heal him and the land that’s gone to waste around him. The Fisher King story has taken on many forms over the years and gets recounted here in a version unique to the film, and one that parallels the action around it. Instead of Percival or other Arthurian knights, it’s a fool who unwittingly finds the Grail and heals the king. Like much of The Fisher King, the moment needs the performances and the direction to keep it from tipping over into mawkishness. Talking to The L.A. Times, LaGravenese recalled Gilliam asking him to put back “odd, weird stuff” taken out in the development process and noted “that is so important because the script to me could have been so sentimental that it makes your teeth hurt.”

    What did end up on screen is very much a movie- and metaphor-friendly depiction of mental illness that, had it veered off course, would have risked romanticizing both instability and homelessness. As it’s handled, however, it works: Growing calmer and more coherent as the story progresses, Parry almost slips back into sanity near the end. But sanity also means remembering losing his wife when a gunman, inspired by something Jack told him on the air, shot up a bar three years earlier.

    It’s at this point that the Red Knight, the film’s nightmarish manifestation of Parry’s worst fears about the past he’s trying to outrun, and the depression threatening to pull him under, makes an appearance, just as it does later, after a successful date with Lydia (Amanda Plummer), a woman he’d previously admired only from afar. Williams’ scenes with Plummer, particularly a long walk home after their dinner, are both heartbreaking and romantic. The thought of happiness grounds him, steadying his thoughts. And though Lydia’s portrayed as only slightly less eccentric than her suitor, Plummer and Williams make it seem plausible they’ll be able to balance each other out. Yet for Parry, experiencing happiness means fearing its loss, and soon the Knight chases him through the streets to the spot where Jack previously met the murderous thugs. Accompanied by his vision of the Knight, they return, and it’s almost as if Parry willed them there. As they attack him, his last words are, “Thank you.”

    It’s tough to watch this moment now, to see Williams play a man wishing for death, even though it’s consistent with the character Williams creates in the film. After a horrific experience, Parry has reassembled the world out of the shattered pieces of what’s been left to him—scraps left on the street, rags others discarded, medieval stories he taught as a professor, and memories of a time when a woman loved him. It’s kept him safe, but rejoining the world means confronting that loss, and finding happiness means understanding he could lose it all again.

    The figure of the Fisher King makes an appearance in T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” but The Fisher King brings to mind lines from another Eliot poem: “human kind / cannot bear very much reality.” Gilliam’s previous films had made that a central theme, sometimes at a bit of a remove. Williams’ performance gives it flesh-and-blood form. Parry has the madness Williams brought to his comedy and the gravity of his best dramatic work, but nothing separates them. Williams the improv artist surfaces in lines like “Now that you know where we are, don’t be a stranger. Come back—we’ll rummage!” before vanishing as the character sinks down into muttered nonsense and conversations with unseen forces. The performance jumbles insanity, melancholy, and fragility together until they become nearly indiscernible.

    Parry finds the happy ending Williams couldn’t; it’s best to leave any other parallels there. Whatever resemblance Williams’ off-screen life bore to the characters he played, the work remains knowable in a way the man never will be, no matter how candid he was about his struggles in interviews. In his best roles, Williams conveyed a sense of despair and a need for connection, sometimes joining it to his comedic talents, other times muting that ability, but in his strongest performances finding a way to join the two, even if it was just to let a glimmer of his dervish energy peek out from behind his eyes. Williams’ best work, the stuff that will be remembered much longer than, say, The Big Wedding, didn’t clear room to accommodate his comedic skills. It allowed him to reinvent himself, to pound his gift into new forms to suit the screen. There’s genius in that, too.

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  3. The death of Robin Williams, and a call to be better:

    http://www.denofgeek.com/movies/robin-williams/31778/the-death-of-robin-williams-and-a-call-to-be-better

    The tragedy surrounding Robin Williams’ passing was made worse by crass reporting in some sectors of the media, Simon writes…

    A week or so after the sad news broke, many remain in shock over the death of Robin Williams. The much-loved actor and comedian died at the age of 63, having taken his own life. I can’t begin to imagine the depths of despair that he must have fallen into in order to do such a thing, and for his close friends and family, the last few days must have been utterly unbearable. My heart truly goes out to them. I never knew the man, and I was shocked to the core. How they felt I can’t begin to comprehend.

    I can only dearly hope that the majority of them at least managed to avoid certain quarters of the internet on Tuesday 12th August 2014 though, and the tabloid headlines the following day. For amongst the genuine outpourings of affection, and expressions of loss, was what’s becoming a deeply uncomfortable race to the bottom, with a growing number taking part.

    Sadly, many of you will already be well aware where this is heading.

    I’m talking about a trend that’s repeating itself whenever someone famous passes away, and it’s one that’s almost unique to big news websites. Namely: how can they turn the death of someone famous into as many mouse clicks and screen taps as possible? Within hours of Williams’ death, the internet was awash with stories examining every possible angle, each vying for your attention. There’s something deeply unsettling about it, yet it now appears to be The Way Things Are Done.

    It’s not lost on many of us that the major names in reporting are leading the charge. And it’s a shame, because if you look deeper online, and you’ll find a host of websites with deeply affectionate tributes. That was certainly the case with Robin Williams’ death last week, where there were some genuinely moving articles posted.

    Still, even a decade ago, the loss of somebody well-known would, at worst, generally result in people putting together tribute lists and features. I’ve never been entirely comfortable with those, but I can see that the majority are done with genuine intentions, rather than being about garnering clicks for a website.

    What this piece is about, however, is a call for change, however futile it may be. Hadley Freeman, writing in The Guardian, put together a piece entitled ‘How To Cover Celebrity Deaths: the new rules’ earlier in the year, and I found myself reading it and nodding as I did so.

    She wrote it partly in response to Mail Online – the world’s most popular newspaper website, attracting over 100 million users a month – which had posted a video of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s partner in the days after his sudden death, as she tried to organise his funeral. But Freeman also makes valid points about the way columnists and fashion writers also make clickbait out of a high-profile death.

    The reporting of Robin Williams’ passing, however, seemed to excavate new depths. Within hours of the news breaking, once-respected names were falling over themselves to come up with appropriate clickbait. These are all legitimate screenshots taken just hours after news of Williams’ death was reported:

    It beggars belief that one of the first thoughts following news of Williams’ death would be over the status of Mrs Doubtfire 2, but Variety – once the premier name in film reporting, and a brand that’s supposedly meant to stand for something – took mere hours to get on the story. Variety is supposed to be the kind of film outlet we all look up to. Not last Tuesday, it wasn’t.

    It seems a whole bunch of reporters couldn’t get to Twitter quickly enough either, to amalgamate stories such as ‘Celebs shocked, devastated’. As for Mail Online urging us not to miss the story of Williams’ “utterly heartbroken wife”? I don’t know where to start.

    I’ll spare you the reposting of Wednesday’s tabloid headlines. Chances are you know what they are already.

    To put this into context: a man, who had been suffering (and that’s exactly the word) from depression, one of the least understood illnesses on the planet, took his own life. He was 63, was survived by a wife and three children, all of whom were left trying to put the pieces of their lives back together. They were greeted by stories looking at any possible angle from which to get traffic to a website.

    The widely-tweeted screenshot that seemed to encapsulate everything that was wrong, though, was this one. This was from ABC, a Disney-owned company and one of the major television networks in the US.

    To be clear: inside that house was a grieving family. Had one of them stepped outside, a live news feed would presumably have zoomed in, so the world could see them at one of the lowest moments of their life. ABC, I should note, has since apologised.

    But why do it in the first place? Where is the public interest in that? Where is the humanity in that? This may all sound a bit holier-than-thou and preachy, but seriously: doesn’t this have to stop now?

    It may also sound idealistic, even a forlorn hope, but surely, asking for reporters to remember we’re human beings at such low moments isn’t an unreasonable request?

    The death of Robin Williams brought out so much warmth and emotion in many people across the world, clearly touched by a man who had, for decades of his life, entertained millions of people in a manner few, if any, of us could. The reporting of his death from many major outlets, though, was absolutely shameful (and not shy of double standards. Nikki Finke penned a long warm obituary to Williams on her site, overlooking the fact that back in September last year, she wrote, “Someone get him back on drugs or alcohol or both”).

    They’d argue, of course, that if we didn’t click on them, then they wouldn’t be so popular. And unfortunately, that’s absolutely right. The onus, I’d suggest, is on both sides: on the people putting words on the internet, and the people choosing which ones to click on.

    It’s a plea that likely won’t work. I’m not naive. But I do know that Robin Williams’ family, and more before and many after, do not deserve a news helicopter hovering above their house in the midst of such a tragic day.
    ‘Competitive Grieving’

    While I’ve got my flame suit on, there’s another growing trend when the world loses someone famous, and the best phrase I’ve heard to describe it is ‘competitive grieving’.

    Again: I truly believe that the majority of people who posted on social media in response to Williams’ death were shocked, moved and upset. Their responses were genuine. But I’d also contend that there’s a smaller subset who, whether they see it or not, seem to be engaged in a game of grieving one-upmanship. The worst examples tend to be articles of the ilk of ‘the Robin Williams I knew’, as invoices are swiftly enclosed alongside articles that claim to have some insight others haven’t. Yet it’s the trend on social media to try and outdo other grievers, by recounting personal encounters, trying to show how some may be more upset than somebody else, or by in some way quantifying one person’s grief as more intense than another’s. I find it incredibly uncomfortable.

    I’m sparing some of the individual examples I’ve seen on Twitter over the last week, and in the week after Philip Seymour Hoffman died, so as not to point ire in the direction of a particular individual. But I found no shortage of examples.

    People react to bad news in very different ways, and I don’t for a minute think to dictate how each of us deals with shocks and tragedies. Conversely, I do think a modicum of respect, and a larger dose of ‘being a human being’ wouldn’t hurt.

    It’s been a terrible week, particularly for Williams’ friends and family. But if we’re looking for something even vaguely helpful to come out of the outpouring of warmth of grief, then hopefully, the shaming of some segments of the media, and their dealing with a sensitive issue, will have a positive ramification somewhere along the line. I’m an idealist, granted, but I can’t help thinking there really has to be a better way forward.

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  4. we should remember robin for his amazing career but the mistakes he made with his personal life he made us laugh mr doubtfire cry good will hunting when robin died a part of our childhood died my first movie in theater was flubber

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    • There’s a lot of material out there to remember him by; there has to be something for everyone of all ages and temperments.
      Sure, there are individuals who have struggles, some more than others (personally, I struggle a lot with much, but I write, so I’m alright:-):and you hope they can either break through, or make the most of the time they had. In Robin Williams’ case, he was of the latter.
      I found it interesting to hear that Robin Williams’ remains were cremated so quickly (if he was of the Jewish faith, then 24 hours would be routine), but then again that may have been his wish.

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