Share This Page

Robin Williams, boisterous comedy star, dead at 63

| Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014, 12:51 a.m.

SAN FRANCISCO — Robin Williams, the Academy Award winner and comic supernova whose explosions of pop culture riffs and impressions dazzled audiences for decades and made him a gleamy-eyed laureate for the Information Age, died on Monday in an apparent suicide. He was 63.

Williams was pronounced dead in his San Francisco Bay Area home, according to the sheriff's office in Marin County, north of San Francisco. The sheriff's office said a preliminary investigation shows the cause of death to be suicide due to asphyxia.

The Marin County coroner's office said Williams was last seen alive at home about 10 p.m. Sunday. An emergency call from his house in Tiburon was placed to the sheriff's department shortly before noon Monday.

“This morning, I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings. I am utterly heartbroken,” said Williams' wife, Susan Schneider. “As he is remembered, it is our hope the focus will not be on Robin's death, but on the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions.”

Williams had been battling severe depression recently, said Mara Buxbaum, his press representative. Last month, he announced he was returning to a 12-step treatment program he said he needed after 18 months of nonstop work. He had sought treatment in 2006 for a relapse after 20 years of sobriety.

From his breakthrough in the late 1970s as the alien in the hit TV show “Mork and Mindy,” through his standup act and films such as “Good Morning, Vietnam,” the short, barrel-chested Williams ranted and shouted as if just sprung from solitary confinement. Loud, fast and manic, he parodied everyone from John Wayne to Keith Richards, impersonating a Russian immigrant as easily as a pack of Nazi attack dogs.

Williams' 1987 role as an irreverent Armed Forces Network radio DJ in “Good Morning, Vietnam” was loosely based on the experiences of Wilkinsburg native Adrian Cronauer. Cronauer helped write the script with screenwriter Mitch Markowitz.

Williams was a frequent guest of 84 Lumber founder Joseph Hardy, flying in January 2007 to help Hardy celebrate his 84th birthday bash at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort and performing at some of Hardy's annual “Royal Receptions” at the Fayette County facility. He once joked, “Nemacolin is an Indian word for soon-there-will-be-a-casino.”

He was a riot in drag in “Mrs. Doubtfire,” or as a cartoon genie in “Aladdin.” He won his Academy Award in a rare but equally intense dramatic role, as an empathetic therapist in the 1997 film “Good Will Hunting.”

He was no less on fire in interviews. During a 1989 chat with The Associated Press, he could barely stay seated in his hotel room, or even mention the film he was supposed to promote, as he free-associated about comedy and the cosmos.

“There's an Ice Age coming,” he said. “But the good news is there'll be daiquiris for everyone and the Ice Capades will be everywhere. The lobster will keep for at least 100 years, that's the good news. The Swanson dinners will last a whole millennium. The bad news is the house will basically be in Arkansas.”

Following Williams on stage, Billy Crystal once observed, was like trying to top the Civil War. In a 1993 interview, Williams recalled an appearance early in his career on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” Bob Hope also was there.

“It was interesting,” Williams said. “He was supposed to go on before me and I was supposed to follow him, and I had to go on before him because he was late. I don't think that made him happy. I don't think he was angry, but I don't think he was pleased.

“I had been on the road and I came out, you know, gassed, and I killed and had a great time. Hope comes out and Johnny leans over and says, ‘Robin Williams, isn't he funny?' Hope says, ‘Yeah, he's wild. But you know, Johnny, it's great to be back here with you.' ” In 1992, Carson chose Williams and Bette Midler as his final guests.

Like so many funnymen, Williams had dramatic ambitions. He played for tears in “Awakenings,” “Dead Poets Society” and “What Dreams May Come,” which led New York Times critic Stephen Holden to write that he dreaded seeing the actor's “Humpty Dumpty grin and crinkly moist eyes.”

But other critics approved, and Williams won three Golden Globes, for “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “The Fisher King.”

His other film credits included Robert Altman's “Popeye” (a box office bomb), Paul Mazursky's “Moscow on the Hudson,” Steven Spielberg's “Hook” and Woody Allen's “Deconstructing Harry.” On stage, Williams joined fellow comedian Steve Martin in a 1988 Broadway revival of “Waiting for Godot.”

More recently, he appeared in the “Night at the Museum” movies, playing President Theodore Roosevelt in the comedies in which Ben Stiller's security guard has to contend with wax figures that come alive and wreak havoc after a museum closes. The third film in the series is in post-production, according to the Internet Movie Database.

In April, Fox 2000 said it was developing a sequel to “Mrs. Doubtfire” and Williams was in talks to join the production.

Williams made a short-lived return to TV last fall in CBS' “The Crazy Ones,” a sitcom about a father-daughter ad agency team that co-starred Sarah Michelle Gellar. It was canceled after one season.

His personal life was often short on laughter. He had acknowledged drug and alcohol problems in the 1970s and '80s and was among the last to see John Belushi before the “Saturday Night Live” star died of a drug overdose in 1982.

Williams announced in 2006 that he was drinking again but rebounded well enough to joke about it during his recent tour. “I went to rehab in wine country,” he said, “to keep my options open.” The following year, he told the AP that people were surprised he was no longer clean.

“I fell off the wagon after 20 years and people are like, ‘Really?' Well, yeah. It only kicks in when you really want to change,” he said.

Born in Chicago in 1951, Williams called himself a shy kid who got some early laughs from his mother — by mimicking his grandmother. He joined the drama club in high school and was accepted into the Juilliard Academy, where he was encouraged to pursue comedy by John Houseman.

“You look at the world and see how scary it can be sometimes and still try to deal with the fear,” he said in 1989. “Comedy can deal with the fear and still not paralyze you or tell you that it's going away. You say, OK, you got certain choices here, you can laugh at them and then once you've laughed at them and you have expunged the demon, now you can deal with them. That's what I do when I do my act.”

Trib Total Media contributed to this report.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.