Vale Robin Williams
Among Robin Williams’ many movie roles were characters that struck a chord with the gay community. Colin Fraser charts the entertainment icon's impressive cinematic repertoire.
“You're only given one little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.”
In the beginning there were days, and they were Happy Days. In one of television's most unlikely inter-marriages, a comedy series about suburban life in 1950s America spawned a spin-off about an alien sent to monitor human kind in the late 1970s. Mork and Mindy was the bastard child of Happy Days’ Richie Cunningham’s dream that would consume primetime television and give the world Robin Williams.
The show ran on the back of the stand-up comedian’s rapid-fire ad-lib patter so much so that he put scriptwriters out of a job. They wrote lines for Pam Dawber (Mork’s roommate Mindy) and followed it with ‘Robin says something funny’. His genius filled in the blanks and the show literally ran on the power of his phenomenal one liners.
“It’s like voluntary Tourettes.”
It wouldn’t be the last time that his high-octane stand-up would stand-in for scriptwriters. Hollywood soon came knocking and what followed was a long and lasting career, one peppered with unforgettable roles amid the oddities. He was a genie, a nanny, a doctor, a penguin, an airman and most things in-between. In 1987 Good Morning Vietnam propelled Williams around the world as a garrulous and excruciatingly funny announcer for Armed Forces radio – another role he largely wrote himself. It happened again when he un-bottled the genie in Disney's Aladdin. Animation had never been so mesmerising, so manic, nor so hilarious.
“We had gay burglars the other night. They broke in and rearranged the furniture.”
Above: Robin Williams in Mrs Doubtfire
Outwardly, Williams was unafraid, at least in terms of career choices. In only his second feature he co-starred with a transexual which, in 1982, was no simple thing. A decade later he was cross-dressing himself as the irrepressible Scottish nanny Mrs Doubtfire. Although the ground had been softened by Dustin Hoffman’s Tootsie, it is whom Williams we remember. An uncredited support role in the Priscilla knock-off To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar followed before he came out of his professional closet as gay father and drag promoter Armand Goldman in The Birdcage (1996). Acting against type, he was the ‘straight’ man opposite Nathan Lane's so-flamboyant-it-hurts entertainer. Straight, in this context, didn’t mean dull.
Yet with over seventy film and TV appearances under his belt, it was serious roles that garnered him his greatest critical praise. We knew he was an unparalleled comedian, we didn’t realise he was also a tremendous actor. Films like Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting along with smaller titles like Insomnia and One Hour Photo made the world pay attention to Williams’ serious side. He earned three Academy, two Emmy, four Golden Globe, two SAG and five Grammy nominations. It was in support of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in 1998’s Good Will Hunting that he got to take Oscar home.
“Cocaine is God's way of saying you are making too much money.”
Above: Robin Williams with Nathan Lane in The Birdcage
And Williams made a lot of money. A well documented struggle with drug and alcohol addiction through the 1970s and 80s speaks to mental health issues he suffered through most of his life. Williams landed in rehab on several occasions and cites the death of his friend John Belushi as the event that helped him quit drugs.
“Was it a wake-up call? Oh yeah, on a huge level. The grand jury helped too.”
Yet after years of clean living, he went back into rehab in 2006 after he ‘found himself drinking again’, and checked in again just last month to ‘fine tune and focus his sobriety’. It spoke of deep, unresolved problems, of demons with whom he hadn’t finished wrestling. In the end, he never did.
“I went to rehab in wine country – to keep the options open.”
And that’s the Robin Williams his widow Susan Schneider wants the world to remember. A man who could laugh at himself, laugh at the world and make us laugh with him. “It is our hope the focus will [be] on the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions,” she said in a statement. That’s the man Steven Spielberg remembers. He directed Williams as Peter Pan’s nemesis in Hook, and years later Spielberg would famously cheer himself up by phoning him from the set of the holocaust drama Schindler’s List. ‘He was a lightning storm of comic genius and our laughter was the thunder that sustained him,' wrote Spielberg.
When Williams collected his Academy Award, he joked that “this might be the one time I'm speechless.” He wasn't, and a loving crowd hung from every word as he thanked the world and his father. “When I said I wanted to be an actor, [Dad] said ‘Wonderful – but just have a back-up profession, like welding'.”
Genie, you're free. pic.twitter.com/WjA9QuuldD— The Academy (@TheAcademy) August 12, 2014
Robin Williams passed away on Tuesday, August 11, at the age of 63, and with him a unique spark of madness has been lost.