Robin Williams showed an acting range like no comedic actor before him. But he was too bursting with life – with humor, empathy and personal authenticity – to stick to one path.
He was a Juilliard School theater student who became a sweaty, frenzied nightclub comic and then a TV star. He blazed to national prominence as the childlike, endearing alien on “Mork and Mindy,” a 1970s sitcom far removed from his raw stand-up material. His subsequent movie career would move him into drama, then pathos, and occasionally into the overwrought – his seeming over-correction for being so incandescently funny.
His sweet spot, on film, was mixing irreverence with a profound understanding of human capability and weakness. He did this as a spirited prep school teacher in “Dead Poets Society,” in his Oscar-winning role as a therapist in “Good Will Hunting” and, to a degree, as the dad in housekeeper drag in “Mrs. Doubtfire.”
Williams, who died Monday at age 63 at his Marin County home, was like nothing TV audiences had seen when he first appeared on “Mork and Mindy.” Though he often has been compared to his idol, friend and fellow oddball Jonathan Winters, Williams was far more open, lacking the barrier of absurdity that Winters placed between himself and his audience.
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Williams was not quite leading-man handsome, but always kind of cute. If Bono could be a sex symbol, then so could Williams. They did look alike.
On “Mork and Mindy,” you could buy Williams as the innocent who said “nanu-nanu” and found Earth etiquette curious, but also as a viable love interest for the adorable Mindy (Pam Dawber).
“Mork” made Williams a sensation, on TV, in his stand-up act, and on talk-show couches, where the most unexpected wonders would fall from his mouth. He followed the series with the title role in the hottest literary adaptation of its time, “The World According to Garp,” based on John Irving’s novel. It was another man-boy role, and a somewhat passive one – the breakout was John Lithgow, daring and sympathetic as a transgender character – yet still a breakthrough in showing Williams could be calm and non-comedic.
Many comedians venture into drama. Jerry Lewis, Richard Pryor, Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler. They do this as a professional departure, and there’s usually at least some darkness in their souls. Comedians long have been known as the most maladjusted showbiz type. Williams was more honest about his maladjustment than most, while also being more generous with his time and talent.
Williams stumped in a large way for Comic Relief but also in a smaller fashion for Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. At stand-up shows, he would move fans in the back row to the front row, purposely left empty. Though many comics are terrible interviews, because they want to save it for the stage, Williams gave his all to reporters. The trouble came from trying to transcribe his fast talking.
The Marin County Sheriff’s Department has reported that Williams apparently committed suicide. Regardless of how he died, he leaves a legacy of unusual candor about his personal demons. He was open about his 1980s cocaine and alcohol abuse – stories that became part of his stand-up act. And he acknowledged he entered a rehab in July for what he characterized as a sobriety checkup.
His intuitive honesty, and addict’s understanding of spiritual darkness, translated to an empathy for troubled characters. He combined his propensities for comedy and desperation in “The Fisher King,” in which he played a mentally ill, grandiose character while keeping his own showmanship instinct mostly in check.
Deep empathy can be hard to modulate. Sometimes attracted to emotionally manipulative roles, he hit a career low with his please-love-me performance in “Patch Adams.”
He could go too dark. He did it twice in 2002, as an obsessive photo technician in “One Hour Photo” and a serial killer in “Insomnia.” These performances were nuanced and convincing, but accepting him as such awful people was too difficult.
It might sound dismissive to disregard accomplished performances, but an actor establishes a persona early in his career that only can be stretched so far. Audiences accepted Williams in dramatic roles. But not Mork as a serial killer.
Williams’ best cinematic performances – the ones for which he will and should be remembered – came in mentor roles that tapped his empathy, kindness and sometimes even a bit of that hyperkinetic stand-up energy. Seizing the day, along with the students in “Poets Society,” was easy with Williams’ teacher leading the charge. In “Doubtfire,” Williams is funny in matronly padding but also believable as a father who becomes a mother figure.
Though such things rarely align, the performance for which Williams won his Oscar was also his finest. As a therapist who counsels smart-aleck janitor and math wunderkind Matt Damon in “Hunting,” Williams is subtly funny but also unexpectedly tough as a doctor with his own painful past. The toughness is unexpected because most of Williams’ characters were cuddlier.
But this one was not a man-boy, or a madman. Just a man, as solid and earthbound as Mork was manic and otherworldly.