Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Robin Williams: Behind the clowning, a troubled man with a complex private life

Robin Williams accepts the Favorite Scene Stealing Guest Star award during the 35th Annual People's Choice Awards in 2009
Robin Williams with his wife Susan Schneider
Mrs Doubtfire

Robin Williams was one of the greatest comic actors of his generation. On television, in Mork and Mindy, and as the star of films such as Good Morning, Vietnam, Mrs Doubtfire and Good Will Hunting, for which he won an Oscar, he brought his special brand of zany comic acting to delighted audiences.

"Comedy is acting out optimism," he once said, with the infectious goofy grin and twinkling eyes that were his trademark.

Williams, who died by suicide, was born in Chicago in 1951, the son of Robert Williams, a Ford executive, and Laura, a former model. He grew up in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan and later Woodacre, California.

Williams began his career in that most difficult of trades, stand-up comedy. And despite later becoming a star of both the small and big screen, continued to perform stand-up throughout his life. It was as the alien Mork in the television series Mork and Mindy (1978-82), a spin-off from Happy Days, that he first found widespread recognition for his off-the-wall sense of humour and the use of catchphrases such as "I am Mork from Ork, na-nu na-nu."

From comic alien to unconventional wartime DJ, Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) saw Williams as the breakfast host for Radio Saigon. Much loved by the troops but an irritant to his superiors, Williams serves up beautifully delivered lines, such as "Sometimes you got to specifically go out of your way to get into trouble. It's called fun."

Although it seemed a comic role, the underlying anti-war message of this multi-layered film is clear. The performance gained him a Golden Globe award and an Oscar nomination for best actor.

In the film farce Mrs Doubtfire (1993), Williams, as the unemployed and hapless actor, Daniel Hillard, takes on the role of nanny to his own three children, so as to be able to secretly visit his family at the home of his divorced wife. Much of the film's appeal comes from Williams' ad-libbed remarks. These unscripted additions brought an added dimension to the film. "Robin comes to the set and he'll do four or five scripted takes," the film's director, Chris Columbus, said in 1994, "and then he'll start improvisations but always based on character. They don't get too wild until around Take 14 or 15. I then go back to the editing room and interlay them throughout the original scripted sequence. And they cut like butter."

The performance won him an American Comedy award, a Golden Globe award and an MTV Movie award.

He once revealed his favorite childhood book was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by Ulster author CS Lewis.

"I would read the whole CS Lewis series out loud to my kids. I was once reading to Zelda, and she said, 'Don't do any voices. Just read it as yourself.' So I did, I just read it straight, and she said, 'That's better'."

His personal life was as complex as some of his on-screen roles. Williams had been dealing with drug and alcohol addiction since the 1970s and had gone through long periods on and off the wagon. After twice divorcing, at a cost of some £20m, he had been philosophical about his marital misadventures. "Instead of getting married again," he said, "I'm going to find a woman I don't like and just give her my house."

That was before a third marriage, to Susan Schneider, softened his inner cynic. "It's been a wild time, but it's pretty wonderful right now," he said just after their honeymoon. "My wife has helped me through so many things. Love is the most important thing in life."

Williams was last seen alive by his wife Susan at around 10.30pm on Sunday before she went to bed. He was found at his apartment in Tiburon, California, on Monday at 11.55am. Police said he was "unconscious and not breathing" and was pronounced dead at 12.02pm. The cause was given as "suicide due to asphyxia".

His finest moments on the screen

Robin Williams is perhaps best known for his role in 1997 drama Good Will Hunting with Matt Damon which earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

He first hit our screens in Mork and Mindy, a quirky 80s TV series about a manic alien.

He won his first Oscar nomination as a fast-talking DJ in Barry Levinson’s 1987 Vietnam War comedy drama Good Morning Vietnam.

Mrs Doubtfire (1991) was an enduring comedy, in which he plays the wise old Scottish nanny to his unwitting family after his marriage hits problems.

Dead Poets Society (1989) earned him his second Oscar nomination as a poetry teacher. He played broad comedies such as Night At The Museum (2006).

And few will ever be able to see a cartoon genie without hearing his voice in 1992’s Aladdin.

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