In life, he was hailed as a comedic genius. In death, he has been called a legend and placed on a plane with Bob Hope and Danny Kaye.
Both labels fit Robin Williams—a genius whose ability allowed him to transcend generations.
The Chicago-born comedian thrived on improv. In fact, the way he went about the art was enough to make viewers think he created the concept. He would riff on the hot topics and trends of the day before seguing into imitations of everyone from celebrities to politicians.
But, all that humor belied the pain he couldn’t escape. Born July 21, 1951, Williams was found dead in his California home on August 6.
Though he had two half-brothers, Robin McLaurin Williams was raised as only child. His father, a Ford Motor Company executive, was transferred to Detroit when Williams was 12. The combination of a working mother and a father who was frequently away left him copious time to develop his vivid imagination and study the likes of Jonathan Winters, Peter Sellers and Sid Caesar.
Just four years after the family moved to Detroit, Williams’ father took early retirement and packed up the family for Tiburon, California, where his son attended Redwood High School. His classmates awarded him two labels senior year—Funniest, perhaps an understatement, and Most Likely Not to Succeed.
After graduation, a brief stint studying political science at Claremont Men’s College was ended to study acting at College of Marin, where a drama instructor predicted Williams’ success. In 1973, he was awarded a full scholarship to attend the famed Juilliard School in New York. He was one of only two students accepted to the advanced program that year—the other was Christopher Reeve. He left Juilliard in 1976 during his junior year.
Despite his immense talent, Williams still had to climb the ladder to success, but his ascent was maybe just a bit faster than others. His career kicked off back in San Francisco’s Holy City Zoo comedy club, where he bartended, eventually working his way onto the stage in the mid-1970s. While working in Los Angeles, producer George Schlatter recognized his talent and offered Williams his TV debut in a revival of Laugh-In.
That was 1977, the same year he performed a show at the L.A. Improv for HBO. The following year, Williams got the break that would make him a household name.
When his egg landed on our humble planet and Mork from Ork first uttered, “Nanu, nanu,” the nation fell under his spell and still hasn’t stopped laughing—for long—since. There were glimmers of the serious, even disturbing, in films like Good Will Hunting and One Hour Photo.
Despite the raucous humor and thought-provoking roles that brought great success, Williams faced demons. When he conquered them, they became material for his next show.
In 2002, Williams first teamed up with the USO to entertain troops fighting a war few had seen coming. It would be the first of six tours, each one loaded with moments troops wouldn’t soon forget.
“He always took the time to sit down and talk to people about what they were going through, what life on the base was like, about personal experiences,” Rachel Tischler, vice president of USO Entertainment, said. “And then he’d get on stage and he’d be telling a joke about Mexican Night in the [dining facility].
“He already put on a great show, but now it was just for the people who were there and no one else would have gotten the jokes. … It made the moment even more amazing for them because he’s talking about what they went through. … It was absolutely mind-blowing.”
For Williams, the feeling was mutual.
“There’s nothing I enjoy more than traveling with the USO and giving back to our troops in whatever way I can,” Williams said during his 2007 USO tour led by then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen. “They work hard, sacrifice a lot and deserve to be treated like the heroes they are. The very least I can do is bring a smile to their faces.”
It was with a heavy heart that USO bid our friend farewell.
“When our service members had the opportunity to see him in person, they knew they were seeing an icon of comedy, but it was more than that,” said John Pray, the USO’s executive vice president and chief of staff. “It was someone who actually understood their own trials and tribulations and struggles as they dealt with loneliness, fear, uncertainty and a variety of negative emotions.
“He brought them light and took them away for a period of time from those challenges and gave them a chance to recharge.”
Samantha L. Quigley is the editor in chief of ON★PATROL.