Robin Williams was a star, a comedian, and a tremendously gifted actor. He was also a person who struggled with depression, drug addiction, and alcoholism. Sometime before noon on Monday, he took his own life.
The A.V. Club is a pop culture publication, which means that it isn’t really our place to try and explain why Williams did what he did—except to say that his death, like all suicides, is tragic. We can’t credibly speak about Williams as a person; though he had a reputation for being able to talk about his demons with candor, he was also, in many ways, a deeply private man. And yet his death hurts, especially for those who, like this writer, grew up with Williams as a ubiquitous cultural presence—the first celebrity voice they could recognize, and the first movie star they could name.
It helped, of course, that Williams didn’t really look like a movie star—he was short, hairy, hawk nosed, with a big creased forehead and small, expressive eyes. And though his voice was elastic—it was partly that talent for vocal mimicry that got him into John Houseman’s program at Juilliard—it always possessed the same fuzzy depth.
The paradox of Williams’ persona and talent is that he was capable of rich shading as an actor, but was drawn to the broad and loud as a performer. Much has been said of his tendency to pick mawkish projects—Patch Adams, Bicentennial Man, Jakob The Liar—and of the relentless, manic mugging of his stand-up performances. He occupied a unique position in popular culture: a broad, aggressive, mile-a-minute stand-up who was equally successful as a screen actor capable of great subtlety, who radiated a natural warmth, but could also easily inhabit frustrated or chilly characters.
Williams was a theater actor who had trained with the best, but he made a career in stand-up and sitcoms before returning to drama. Perhaps the immediate responsiveness of the comedy audience had something to do with it. It’s easier—especially for a young and eager performer—to get high off continual bursts of laughter than off the polite applause that comes at the curtain call. Applause is a social nicety, and even a bad performance will end with the audience clapping; laughter, on the other hand, always has to be earned.
As a stand-up, Williams possessed the same talent for vocal impressions and body language as Richard Pryor, with whom he worked on the short-lived Richard Pryor Show, but he had the stage presence of a tightly stretched rubber band, threatening to snap at any minute. Cocaine—to which he was addicted throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s—certainly played a part, though sobriety didn’t make his later stand-up performances any less manic than the earlier ones; they were merely less aggressive. On the set of Mork & Mindy—the hit sitcom that helped make Williams into a household name—he was given ample room to improvise. He behaved and sounded like a cartoon character; not coincidentally, his first major film role would come in the form of a live-action adaptation of Popeye.
Beginning with 1982’s The World According To Garp, Williams began to reinvent himself as a seriocomic actor. By the time the 1990s came around, he was a two-time Best Actor nominee. It’s not as though Williams had grown into acting; the same talent was visible in his earliest TV appearances. Rather, his career trajectory seemed to suggest a performer becoming more and more at ease with silence, and with the darker side of human nature.
After building a family-friendly screen persona in the 1990s—thanks in part to his appearances in movies like Jumanji and Mrs. Doubtfire, and his voice work in Aladdin—Williams spent much of the last decade or so of his career subverting it. Films like Insomnia, One Hour Photo, and World’s Greatest Dad showcased Williams as an actor with a talent for playing characters that seemed uncomfortable in their own skin.
And that, perhaps, is why Williams’ death hurts. Dead Poets Society, Awakenings, and Good Will Hunting made Williams into an empathetic presence—the humane outsider who embodies both a certain professionalism and a kind of uncommon care and decency, the best of human nature. Yet many of Williams’ later leading roles find him tapping into frustration and disappointment. It makes for one of the broadest bodies of work in American acting, with performances that range from cartoony to low-key, optimistic to sinister.
And yet the actor always remains recognizable, as though he were able to contain all of these varieties of experience within himself. That’s what made him a virtuoso performer, and what made him seem so ineffably human.