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About Robin Williams

Whether he is performing on stage, television, or in the movies or participating in a serious interview, listening to and watching comedian/actor Robin Williams is an extraordinary experience. An improvisational master with a style comparable to Danny Kaye, his words rush forth in a gush of manic energy. They punctuate even the most basic story with sudden subject detours that often dissolve into flights of comic fancy and unpredictable celebrity impressions before returning earthward with some pithy comment or dead-on observation.

Williams was born on July 21, 1951, in Chicago, the son of a Ford Motor Company executive. His parents were middle-aged when he was born and while both had grown children from previous marriages, Williams was raised as an only child and had much time alone with which to develop his imagination. One way in which he entertained himself was to memorize Jonathan Winters' comedy records. As his father rose amongst the Ford hierarchy, the Williams family moved... Read More »

Whether he is performing on stage, television, or in the movies or participating in a serious interview, listening to and watching comedian/actor Robin Williams is an extraordinary experience. An improvisational master with a style comparable to Danny Kaye, his words rush forth in a gush of manic energy. They punctuate even the most basic story with sudden subject detours that often dissolve into flights of comic fancy and unpredictable celebrity impressions before returning earthward with some pithy comment or dead-on observation.

Williams was born on July 21, 1951, in Chicago, the son of a Ford Motor Company executive. His parents were middle-aged when he was born and while both had grown children from previous marriages, Williams was raised as an only child and had much time alone with which to develop his imagination. One way in which he entertained himself was to memorize Jonathan Winters' comedy records. As his father rose amongst the Ford hierarchy, the Williams family moved frequently. Williams was a pudgy child and was often the new kid in the private schools where he received his education. Much of his quick humor developed as a defense mechanism against the teasing he endured. His father retired during Williams' senior year in high school and permanently settled the family in Marin County, CA. Williams finally found a niche at school, and by the time he graduated, he was physically fit, popular, and voted the funniest and most likely to succeed.

After high school, Williams studied political science at Claremont Men's College and also got involved in improvisational comedy. Interestingly, despite his lifelong interest in funny business, Williams initially trained to be a serious actor, first at Marin College in California and then at Juilliard under John Houseman. While at Juilliard, he helped pay his tuition by working as a mime. After leaving the prestigious art school, he returned to California to perform standup on the club circuit. It was during this time that he honed his tendency to move quickly from idea to idea. His first real break came after an appearance in L.A.'s Comedy Store, which in turn led to a regular gig on George Schlatter's short-lived, late '70s reincarnation of Laugh-In. From there, Williams was cast as a crazy space alien on a fanciful episode of Happy Days. William's portrayal of Mork from Ork delighted audiences and generated so great a response that producer Garry Marshall gave Williams his own sitcom, Mork and Mindy, which ran from 1978 to 1982. The show was a hit and established Williams as one of the most popular comedians (along with Richard Pryor and Billy Crystal) of the '70s and '80s. Though his ceaseless ad-libbing can grate on sensitive nerves, there is something teddy bearish about Williams that makes him tolerable; it certainly made Mork one of television's most popular characters.

Williams made his starring film debut in the title role of Robert Altman's elaborate but financially unsuccessful comic fantasy Popeye (1980). Three years earlier, Williams had appeared in the bawdy comic revue Can I Do It...Till I Need Glasses? (1977). He flexed his dramatic muscles in his next film, The World According to Garp (1982), but again did not find box-office success. Two more unsuccessful films followed, one of which, Moscow on the Hudson (1983), demonstrated his skill with foreign accents. Williams finally became a bona fide star when he was cast as real life military disc jockey Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning, Vietnam. Whereas the real Cronauer was a rather quiet man, Williams' interpretation showed the comic at his maniacal best. Director Barry Levinson allowed Williams to pepper his radio monologues with plenty of humorous ad-libs. The film was a smash hit and earned Williams his first Oscar nomination.

His subsequent film career had its share of high and low points. He was remarkably restrained as an introverted scientist trying to help a catatonic Robert De Niro in Awakenings (1990) and exuberant as an inspirational English teacher in the comedy/drama Dead Poets Society (1989), a role which earned him his second Oscar nomination. His tragi-comic portrayal of a mad, homeless man in search of salvation and the Holy Grail in The Fisher King earned him a third nomination. In 1993, Williams lent his voice to two popular animated movies, Ferngully: The Last Rain Forest and most notably Aladdin, in which he played a rollicking genie and was allowed to go all out with ad-libs, improvs, and scads of celebrity improvisations. In 1993, Williams undertook an ambitious project with Being Human in which a man's troubled relationship with his wife is relived in five vignettes representing wildly different historical errors. The film was more experimental than other Williams efforts and the comedy was largely absent. While this film flopped, his other 1993 film, Mrs. Doubtfire, in which he played a recently divorced father who masquerades as a Scottish nanny to be close to his kids, was one of the year's biggest hits. He had another hit in 1995 playing a rather staid homosexual club owner opposite a hilariously fey Nathan Lane in The Bird Cage. In 1997, Williams turned in one of his best dramatic performances in Good Will Hunting, a performance for which he was rewarded with an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Since the success of Good Will Hunting, Williams has kept busy with films that have produced mixed critical and commercial results. Both of his 1998 films, the comedy Patch Adams and What Dreams May Come, a vibrantly colored exploration of the afterlife, received decidedly mixed reviews, although they fared respectably at the box office. Williams has also had the opportunity to play himself in the documentary Get Bruce, which features such fellow notables as Bette Midler, Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, Lily Tomlin, and his partner from The Bird Cage, Nathan Lane. He next had starring roles in both Bicentennial Man and Jakob the Liar, playing a robot-turned-human in the former and a prisoner of the Warsaw ghetto in the latter. Unfortunately, neither one of these films was particularly well received, with many critics and Williams fans wondering when the actor would forsake the maudlin sentimentality of his current roles for the excoriating humor he had exhibited to such great and enduring effect in his earlier films.

Though it was obvious to all that Williams' waning film career needed an invigorating breath of fresh air, many may not have expected the dark 180-degree turn he attempted in 2002 with roles in Death to Smoochy, Insomnia and One Hour Photo. Catching audiences off-guard with his portrayal of three deeply disturbed and tortured souls, the roles pointed to a new stage in Williams' career in which he would substitute the sap for more sinister motivations.

Absent from the big-screen in 2003, Williams continued his vacation from comedy in 2004, starring in the little-seen thriller The Final Cut and in the David Duchovny-directed melodrama The House of D. After appearing in the comedy documentary The Aristocrats and lending his voice to a character in the animated adventure Robots in 2005, he finally returned full-time in 2006 with roles in the vacation laugher RV and the crime comedy Man of the Year.

In addition to his considerable film work, Williams has recorded three albums, appeared in a multitude of television comedy specials, and since the 1980s has been a primary host of Comic Relief, an annual televised benefit for the homeless. During the '80s, Williams overcame a serious drug addiction, divorced his first wife, and married his son's nanny, who has since become his manager and the mother of his daughter and second son.