Whether you know him best from his stand-up comedy, his role in Mork & Mindy or his many blockbuster movies in the ’80s and ’90s, there’s one thing everyone can agree on: Robin Williams was a truly gifted, creative performer.
Williams started out during the stand-up comedy boom of the ’70s, and his wacky persona made him destined for stardom. Over time, he proved himself to be more than just a goofball, and won an Oscar for his powerful role in Good Will Hunting. His fanbase spanned generations, thanks to his roles in kid-friendly fare like Jumanji, Flubber and Aladdin. In short, there was nothing Williams couldn’t do.
Ever since his shocking passing in 2014, at just 63, we’ve missed him deeply. Here’s a look back at his singular life and the many iconic Robin Williams movies he left behind.
Robin Williams’ early days
Robin Williams was born in Chicago in 1951 and was shy and lonely growing up. It was then that he began doing silly voices and imitations to entertain himself. “My imagination was my friend, my companion,” he recalled. In high school, Williams became involved with his high school drama department and started developing his taste for performance. It’s hard to believe Williams was ever shy, and he was a talented entertainer from a young age, receiving a full scholarship for The Juilliard School’s prestigious theater program. He ultimately dropped out, feeling that he was ready to find success without any more formal training.
Robin Williams hits it big
In 1976, Williams began performing stand-up comedy. TV appearances soon followed, and in 1978, he was cast as Mork, a friendly alien, on an episode of Happy Days called “My Favorite Orkan.”
Viewers loved the character so much that later that year he got his own spinoff, Mork & Mindy. Williams frequently improvised, put on silly voices and did physical comedy in the role, making him a wholly unique presence. His wild comic talents led him to his first starring feature film as the titular sailor in Popeye in 1980.
With his Mork & Mindy success, Williams was able to reach a wider audience with his stand-up comedy, but it wasn’t all fun and games. “It’s a brutal field,” Williams once said of the life of a stand-up comic. “It takes its toll. If you’re on the road, it’s even more brutal… The pressure kicks in. You become obsessed and then you lose that focus that you need.”
Williams also confessed that partly due to the stress of performing stand-up, he started using drugs and alcohol — a situation that required a rehab stint later on in his career.
Robin Williams in the ’80s and ’90s
By 1982, Williams had formed a close relationship with another comedian, original Saturday Night Live cast member John Belushi. Williams had dropped by the Chateau Marmont, where Belushi was staying in Los Angeles. Drugs were flowing freely but the next afternoon, Williams got the devastating news that his friend had passed away during the night of an overdose at 33 years old. This was a wake-up call for Williams, who quit drugs and drinking cold turkey.
As the ’80s progressed, Robin Williams ramped up his acting career, with roles in movies like The World According to Garp, Moscow on the Hudson and other films. He soon proved that he was more than just a jokester, when he was nominated for an Oscar for his role as a ’60s-era DJ in the 1987 film Good Morning, Vietnam.
Two years later, he was nominated again, for his inspiring role as a teacher in Dead Poets Society. He kept the streak going with another nomination for his role as a homeless man in the 1991 drama The Fisher King.
Williams could move seamlessly from comedy to drama to family fare. In 1991 he starred as Peter Pan in Steven Spielberg’s Hook, and in 1992, he voiced the genie in Aladdin. The ’90s brought more crowdpleasers that showed off Williams’ zany ways and hit it big at the box office, including Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji and Flubber. In 1997, he won a well-deserved Oscar for his role as a therapist in Good Will Hunting.
Other dramatic performances included Bicentennial Man, in which he played a robot, Insomnia, in which he played a murderer on the run, and One Hour Photo, in which he played an emotionally disturbed photo technician.
Williams’ later life
Williams stayed busy into the ’00s, with roles as everything from a penguin in Happy Feet to Teddy Roosevelt in Night at the Museum to a lonely teacher in World’s Greatest Dad. Sadly, he began fighting a private battle when he was diagnosed with early-stage Parkinsons’ disease and became deeply depressed.
In 2014, he died by suicide, and his untimely passing shocked his many fans. The world got a little less funny with his loss. The Angriest Man in Brooklyn was Williams’ last movie to be released while he was alive.
Williams’ legacy lives on through his performances ranging from the hilarious to the heart-wrenching. He also left a powerful impact with his philanthropic work. In 1986, Williams teamed up with Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal to found Comic Relief USA, an annual HBO TV benefit devoted to the homeless. The charity event has raised tens of millions of dollars for the cause.
Williams brought joy to people of all ages for decades, and he was the very definition of a natural performer. In 1986, Williams told Interview magazine “occasionally people say, ‘Why can’t you just be you?’ But this is part of being me, too, the performing. I sometimes get tired of people saying, Well, what are you really like? Well, there are times when life is real quiet and simple and then are other times. I’m both.” Over the course of his career, Williams captured the chaos and the calm, and established himself as the rare performer who could do it all. There was no one like him before he burst on the scene, and there’s unlikely to be anyone who can take his place.
Keep reading for more on your favorite leading men from the 1980s and beyond!