Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams and the Tears of a Clown

Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam

The sudden death of Robin Williams yesterday, an apparent suicide in his California home, shocked and stunned so many of us.  Like Elvis Presley or John Lennon he was a cultural figure of such enormous talent and influence he felt almost like family to many of us.  And it was reflected in the anguished reactions I read from folks of all ages, background, and attitudes in a flood of Facebook postings and comments.
From the beginning, Williams defied convention.  Comedians and other artists are expected to come from outsider cultures and battle their way up through hard times and adversity over a long haul. Robin McLaurin Williams was born in Chicago on July 21, 1951 into an affluent and thoroughly WASP family.  His father was a senior executive at the Ford Motor Company.  His mother was a former Southern belle descended from turn of the 20th Century Mississippi Governor and Senator Anselm J. McLaurin.  He was raised in the Episcopal Church, the religious bastion of the American elite and remained, as he described it, a “semi-faithful” communicant for the rest of his life.
He spent most of his boyhood among the other privileged children of auto industry nabobs in the toney suburb Bloomfield, Michigan and attended Detroit Country Day School.  When Ford transferred his father to California the family settled into a very comfortable home in Woodacre in Marin County.  He attended one of the best public schools in the state, Redwood High School.
As a child outside the family Williams was painfully shy and withdrawn.  Inside the safety of his home, he entertained his mother with imitations of his grandmother, a Southern Grand Dame.  At Redwood he became involved in the theater program and both found himself and blossomed.  He found he could be everything on stage that he could not bring himself to be in social situations.
After graduation he briefly attended Claremont Men’s College and then Marin College where he took theater classes.  At the age of 22 in 1973 he became one of only 20 students nationwide admitted as a freshman to Julliard School’s Drama Division in New York City.  Among his classmates was Christopher Reeve with who be became exceptionally close life-long friends.  Perhaps it was a similarity of backgrounds—Reeve came from a wealthy New York family strewn with distinguished ancestors on both sides.  The two were the only students selected to personally be instructed by school founder John Houseman in the Advanced Program that year.  Williams excelled at Julliard and impressed faculty and fellow students alike.  He left the school in 1976 to pursue a professional career.
Some actors struggle for years just to get cast in bit parts before a breakthrough role comes along.  Almost immediately he was cast in the ensemble for a prestigious, but doomed, project—the Richard Pryor Show on NBC.  In addition to Williams among those who did sketches with Pryor in the comedy variety show were Tim Reid, Sandra Bernhard, Edie McClurg, and Marsha Warfield.  The show was canceled after only four airings amid bitter disputes over censorship between the network and its star.
But the brief exposure grabbed the attention of producer Garry Marshall who called him in for an audition.  When ushered into Marshall's office and asked to sit down, Williams sat on his head and riffed his way through the routine interview questions.  Marshall was so impressed he created a character for Williams, the zany alien Mork for a guest appearance on his hit series Happy Days in 1977.  Williams improvised much of his dialog and his physical comedy shtick.  He was an immediate fan favorite.
Marshall had no problem selling ABC Television on a spin-off series.  Mork and Mindy debuted on September 14, 1967 and co-starred Pam Dawber as the extraterrestrial’s Boulder, Colorado roommate.  The show was built to accommodate Williams’s improvisational style and clicked with audiences due to the goofy chemistry between the two leads.  Mork concluded each episode with a report to his boss Orson on the Planet Orc explaining what he had learned about earth signing off with Nan-Nu Nan-Nu, which became a cultural buzzword. The show was an enormous top-3 hit for the network in its maiden season.
Then network executives started tinkering with it to disastrous results.  First they moved the show from Sunday night where it had ruled the airway to Thursday opposite CBS hit Archie Bunker’s Place a continuation of All in the Family.  Then they began tinkering with the show, jettisoning many first season regulars and shifting emphasis from Mork’s attempts to understand human culture to a romance between the leads.  Over the next three years ratings slipped every year as the network frantically tried more changes designed to rein it into the mold of a more convention sit-com.
In season four, with Mork now married to Mindy, he lays an egg from which Jonathan Winters, Williams’s personal comedy idol and another master of improvisation, emerges as the couple’s son.  Despite the talent of all involved, the twist was too bizarre and viewers lost interest.  Finishing a disastrous 60th place in the Nielsen Ratings, the show was canceled and concluded its run on May 27, 1982.
Mork and Mindy made Williams a star, earning him a Golden Globe for best actor in a comedy series in 1978.  But some thought the end of the show would be the end of his career—that he would become so identified by the character that he would not be able to find new parts.  But Williams had already established himself as one of the leading stand-up comedians in the country and had been touring during series hiatus since its first year. 
HBO the cable network known as the home of recently released A-list Hollywood films, wanted to branch out into producing original programing.  In 1978 he became one of the first comedians with his own stand-up comedy special on the network, Off The Wall.  He would return to the network for two more highly rated specials An Evening with Robin Williams in 1982, and Robin Williams: Live at the Met in 1986. 
As Mork and Mindy was taking off, Williams married Valerie Velardi on June 4, 1978.  The couple had one son, Zachary Pym born in 1983.  The marriage dissolved acrimoniously when Williams was publicly sued for “knowingly transmitting the herpes simplex virus to a cocktail waitress with whom he had an extramarital affair.  The divorce was finalized in 1988 after ten years of marriage.
During those years the often manic Williams was known for his hard partying.  He drank but his drug of choice was the nose candy of the Disco Era, cocaine.  John Beluchi was a close running buddy. Beluchi died of an overdose on March 5, 1982 in Bungalow 3 at the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.  Williams had visited him earlier in the day.  His death stunned Williams, who checked himself into rehab on August 9, 1982 after testifying in a Grand Jury investigation into his friend’s death.  He would remain sober for 20 years.
Although Williams had a small part in the obscure and raunchy sketch comedy feature Can I Do It 'Till I Need Glasses? in 1977 his film career didn’t really take off until he was cast as the lead character in Robert Altman’s highly original re-imagination of Popeye with Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl in 1980.  It did reasonably well at the box office but lost money due to its high production costs, which included the construction of an entire town.  Critics were divided between those who hated it with a serious contempt and those who found it utterly charming.  I am in the latter category.  I loved it then and still do when I catch it on TCM.
Two years later Hollywood sat up and took notice when Williams took on a more serious part in the dramedy The World According to Garp based on the beloved novel by John Irving.  The self-acknowledged “hairiest man in the world” had to shave his whole body to appear as the teen-age wrestler at an elite prep school where his single mother, played by Glenn Close, was the school nurse whose unusual manifesto makes her a feminist icon and a target for terrorist wackos.  The film won awards for Close and for John Lithgow for Supporting Actor as a former football player who becomes transgendered.  But as the anchored center around which many characters and events revolve Williams was a subtle revelation himself.
In 1994 William revisited a familiar theme—an alien trying to make sense of and adjust to America in Paul Mazursky’s Moscow on the Hudson, which the poster accurately summarized:
America is sometimes a strange place even for Americans. Let alone for Vladimir Ivanoff, a Russian defector with a black roommate, a Cuban lawyer, and an Italian girlfriend. Who's learning to live with Big Macs, cable TV, hard rock, softcore, unemployment and a whole new wonderful word for him. Freedom.
In preparation for this part Williams spent months learning to play the saxophone and to speak Russian becoming proficient in both.
Williams catapulted to the front ranks of American movie starts with a riveting performance as military disc jock, Airman Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning, Vietnam a film that swung from hilarious comedy to the abject terror of war and a sharp critique of the whole American experience in Southeast Asia.  It showed him a master at mixing high comedy with pathos like no other performer since Charlie Chaplain.  His performance won him another Golden Globe and his first Academy Award nomination. 
In 1989 Williams put in his first entirely dramatic performance in the highly acclaimed Dead Poets Society in which he played the idealistic English teacher at a wealthy prep school who inspires his students with great poetry—and lives to see their lives unfold—and fail—as a direct result of his influence.  His students recite from Walt Whitman as the fired teacher takes his leave from them, 

O Captain! My Captain! Rise up and hear the bells.
Rise up, for you the flag is flung, for you the bugle trills.
This became a widely cited epitaph for Williams himself yesterday.  The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Williams was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.  He was nominated in the same category for a Golden Globe and took home a BAFTA Film Award for Best Actor.
On April 30, 1989 Williams married his son’s nanny Marsha Garces, who was already several months pregnant with his child.  Zelda Rae was born two months later and Cody Alan followed on November 25, 1991.  Williams was reportedly a doting father to all of his children.  But married life was not so easy.  Marsha filed for divorce in March 2008 citing irreconcilable differences.
Williams dedicated a fair share of his time and fortune to charity work and some activism.  In 1986 he helped Bob Zmuda found Comic Relief which has raised over $50 million for causes ranging from homelessness, to battered women, to Hurricane Katrina relief, to preserving world wildlife habitat.  He was generally joined by pals Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg as co-hosts of the 4-hour telethons aired by HBO.  Williams an wife Marsha also co-founded their own Wildflower Foundation to support many causes.  He has made himself available for scores of benefit shows and been a particular patron of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.  He has been a long-time supporter of liberal Democrats and has spoken out on gay rights and marriage equality and more recently income inequality. 
In 1990 Williams displayed his virtuosity in two wildly different films.  Cadillac Man, he played a car salesman who must sell 12 cars in two days or lose his job while his life disintegrates around him, a sharp comedy with just a bit of an edge.  Then he played Dr. Malcolm Sayer a shy and socially inept psychiatrist overseeing a ward of helpless catatonics in a state mental hospital in Awakenings.  The part was inspired by real life experiences of Dr. Oliver Sacks, on whose book the film was based.  Directed with sensitivity by his old friend Garry Marshall’s sister Penny Marshall the film paired him with Robert DiNiro as the first of a ward full of patients awakened by use of the experimental drug L-Dopa.  It was a restrained, almost delicate performance.  Again the movie one the Oscar for Best Picture and DiNiro won for Best Actor.  Williams was again nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
In 1991 The Fisher King, a surreal cult classic by director Terry Gilliam late of Monte Python, Williams played a homeless former college professor deranged by the death of his wife in an incident accidently inspired by a radio DJ played by Jeff Bridges.  To atone Bridges committed to helping him find an object he describes as the Holy Grail which will re-unite him with the woman he loves.   Williams was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor and yet another Golden Globe.
The same year he had an even bigger commercial success as an adult Peter Pan who must return to Neverland in Steven Spielberg’s Hook with Dustin Hoffman as the villainous pirate and Julia Roberts as Tinkerbelle. 
Williams became one of the first big name actors to lend his talents to big screen animation character voice over in 1992.  FernGully: The Last Rainforest was the second of the two films made, but the first released.  Williams voiced Batty, a flying mammal who has lost his radar and teamed up with fairies, forest creatures, and a shrunken human hero to save their green utopia from destruction by an evil multinational corporation.  It was a cause Williams cared deeply about.  The film was an unexpected hit from a virtually unknown studio, FAI Films.  It became a widely used recruiting film for the ecology movement but was attacked and reviled by the right wing and big business groups for “demonizing corporations.”
Disney’s Aladdin was an even bigger success with Williams as the wise cracking Genii.  As usual he adlibbed many of his lines and in an unusual processes animators then had to do their drawings to his quips.  William had agreed to voice the part for scale—about $75,000 for a principal part—in part out of gratitude for Disney’s Touchstone Pictures having been behind Good Morning, Vietnam.  But when he contributed his work, well before the release, he was unsure about the affect of adding his voice to a cartoon on his career.  His contract with Disney called for his work to be uncredited and that his character’s image not take up more than 24% of any posters and advertising.  Disney ignored their obligations, hyping Williams’s participation.  And in promotion the Genie loomed far larger than any other character, including Aladdin and his princess.  Although Williams was proud of the work, he was furious with Disney for breaking their contractual obligations.  The event set off an ugly public feud and a round of expensive law suits that Williams pursued out of principle.  Genii became a hugely popular character, but Disney could not use Williams for the sequel, promotions, and television programming. Dan Castellaneta, the veteran voice over talent who had been Fred Flinstone and was currently Homer Simpson had to be brought in to do the part for those projects.  When former 20th Century Fox production head Joe Roth replaced the ousted Jeffrey Katzenberg, architect of the betrayal, he did some public groveling and issued formal apologies for Disney.  Satisfied Williams agreed to voice the Genii in the third film in the Aladdin series.
He also agreed to make Jack for Disney division Hollywood Pictures.  Under the direction of Francis Ford Coppola  and featuring an all-star ensemble cast including, Diane Lane, Jennifer Lopez, Fran Drescher, and Bill Cosby, Williams played a boy who ages four times as fast as other children due to a rare genetic condition.  At the age of 10 he looked like a 40 year old.  The boys struggle to adapt, face the teasing and torment of classmates, and face his ultimate mortality whipsawed the movie between zany comedy and bleak melodramatics.  Critics hated it.  Audiences were more forgiving, but it was far from a hit.  This experience and studio budget slashing on his Bicentennial Man project which he believed made the science fiction based on one of Isaac Azimov’s robot stories virtually unwatchable, soured Williams on Disney once again.
But there were far more successful films in the ‘90’s.  Mrs. Doubtfire directed by Chris Columbus and released in 1993 was Williams’s biggest commercial success yet.  He played a children’s television director who would not grow up and was divorced by his wife Sally Field and deprived of the custody of his children.  To see them he becomes Mrs. Doubtfire, a grandmotherly nanny to the children.  It was a famous and unusually non-sexual drag performance that won viewers hearts and became an instant family film classic.
In 1995 Williams teamed up again with Spielberg for Jumanji, a film based on a popular children’s picture book in which animals from a board game come to life and rampage through a town.  Williams played a boy who was trapped in the game for 40 years and emerges as a middle age man who must help rescue two new children who have fallen under the game’s malevolent power.  Note for its spectacular special effects and a touching back story, the film was a hit.
The following year Williams appeared in The Bird Cage, an American adaptation of the popular French/Italian film La Cage aux Folles written for the screen by Elaine May and directed by Mike Nichols.  He was paired with Nathan Lane as one of a long-time gay couple who must pretend to be straight for the benefit of their son who wants to marry the daughter of a bigoted United States Senator.  It was an old fashioned farce with a twist and a message.  Following the release of the film, Williams became more involved in gay rights issues and causes.   The ensemble cast which also included Gene Hackman, Diane Weist, Hank Azara, Clarisa Flockhart, and Christine Baranski won a Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Cast.
1997 brought another dramatic role—as the gentle psychologist treating a tortured working class mathematical genius who had been toiling as an MIT janitor in Goodwill Hunting in a film directed by Gus Van Zandt.  The movie ran the table at the Oscars—Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay for Matt Damon and Ben Affleck,  Best Actor for Damon, Best Supporting Actress for Minnie Driver, and at long last a Best Supporting Actor statuette for Williams himself.
Williams followed up with a touching performance in a surreal film in 1998.  In What Dreams May Come he played a man who was killed in an accident and searches the afterlife for his wife.  The film co-starred Cuba Gooding Jr., Annabella Sciorra, and Max Von Sydow. 
The same year Williams once again played a real live doctor in Patch Adams about an intern who treats his patients with humor and a red clown nose.  The movie was panned by critics, but a popular hit.
After playing a denizen of a Jewish ghetto in Nazi occupied Poland in Jacob the Liar and the failure of Bicentennial Man, Williams turned to much darker material for his next roles.  Perhaps he was trying to stretch his acting chops, perhaps he was exorcizing some inner demons. 
In One Hour Photo Williams played a lonely and repressed clerk at the photo desk of a Wal-Mart like discount store who became obsessed with a middle class family whose photo’s he had processed for years and began stalking them.  Later the same year he played a homicidal maniac in a small Alaska fishing village being pursued through a gray fog by a big city detective suffering from insomnia over guilt for accidently shooting and killing his partner—and getting away with an unexpected alibi.  The cop was played by a doleful Al Pacino and both deaths were being investigated by the local small town cop played by Hillary Swank.  Insomnia was a tense, but grim thriller.
In between those two 2002 films there was the excruciating Death to Smoochy, a film by Danny DiVito in which Williams played a fired and disgraced former children’s show TV host who plots to kill his replacement, the bland and sunny Smoochy the Rhino played in a purple Barneyesque costume by Edward Norton.
It was while on location in Alaska for Insomnia, separated from his family in bleak surroundings and burdened by the heavy material, that Williams fell off the wagon and began to drink again.  He struggled with this demon while his marriage slowly disintegrated until he checked himself in to rehab again in 2006, got clean, and went public with admission of his alcoholism.
The national post-9/11 gloom may have contributed to his anguish.  But he tried to deal with that head-on by beginning years of regular performances for American GI’s across the globe. 
Williams made a string of underperforming films—dramas, flat out comedies, and black comedies during the decade.  Some of them were underappreciated.  Others seemed like throw always.  The films included the Sci-fi thriller Final Cut; comedy/drama House of D in which he played a mentally challenged janitor who befriended a young teenager; The Big White, a dark crime comedy a la Fargo; Night Listener in which he played a gay late night radio host in an odd relationship with a teenage fan and his adopted mother; the silly family vacation comedy RV; and Barry Levinson’s Man of the Year in which he played a satirical TV show star who made a faux run for President but was accidently elected due to a computer error.
If Willams’s film career seemed sputtering along, he kept himself in the public eye with regular, zany appearances on the couches of late night TV and in guest shots on series television.  Some of his appearances with David Letterman are among the funniest ever seen.
It took parts in two movie franchises to help Williams get back into top box office territory.  Returning to animation voice over he portrayed two of the penguins in the mega-hit Happy Feet which won the Oscar for Best Animated Film.  He reprised the roles in 2011’s Happy Feet Two.  In A Night at the Museum and its sequels, including one now in post production for release later this year, Williams played an exuberant Teddy Roosevelt as a Rough Rider.
Williams was not yet done playing former Presidents.  In last year’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler he had a small but effective cameo as President Dwight Eisenhower dealing with the Little Rock High School desegregation crisis. 
On October 11, 2010 Williams married for the third time to graphic designer Susan Schneider.  The couple took up residence in Sea Cliff, a posh neighborhood in Marin County north of San Francisco far from the hubbub of Hollywood.  The marriage seemed by all accounts a close and happy one.
Williams returned to a regular television series for the first time since Mork and Mindy last fall in CBS TV’s highly touted The Crazy Ones.  Williams played the eccentric head of his own Chicago advertising agency.  He was a recovering alcoholic who struggled with sobriety in some of the storylines while trying to maintain a close personal and working relationship with his buttoned-up daughter played by Sarah Michelle Gellar.  Scheduled opposite NBC’s equally hyped vehicle for Sean Hayes, Sean Saves the World both shows struggled and were canceled at the end of the season.
This spring Williams’s agent announced that he was once again checking himself into rehab.  He denied that Williams had gone off the wagon, and said that the treatment was to deal with issues to maintain his sobriety.  We now know those issues included a severe depressive episode in his long-running struggle with bi-polar disorder.
This week he surrendered to that struggle, asphyxiating himself in his home.
As of today his family and friends struggle with their grief.  Funeral and internment plans are pending.

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