He was Hollywood’s grand jester. A comedy titan who was always the center of attention, amusing even the most hardened of cynics with his manic energy. A whirlwind of hilarity. But Robin Williams will, sadly, no longer be sending us into hysterical fits of laughter.
On Aug. 11 at approximately 11:55 a.m., the Marin County Sheriff’s Department received a 911 call reporting that Williams was found unconscious and not breathing at his home in Tiburon, California. Authorities arrived to the scene five minutes later, and Williams, 63, was pronounced dead at 12:02 p.m.
“Preliminary information developed during the investigation indicates Mr. Williams was last seen alive at his residence, where he resides with his wife, at approximately 10:00 pm on August 10, 2014,” read a statement by the Marin County Sheriff’s Department. “At this time, the Sheriff’s Office Coroner Division suspects the death to be a suicide due to asphyxia, but a comprehensive investigation must be completed before a final determination is made.”
The awful news was confirmed by Williams’ publicist, who issued the following statement:
“Robin Williams passed away this morning. He has been battling severe depression of late. This is a tragic and sudden loss. The family respectfully asks for their privacy as they grieve during this very difficult time.”
Recently, the comedy legend had suffered a number of personal setbacks. He entered rehab in 2006 for alcohol, and two years later, Marsha Garces, his wife of 20 years and mother to two of their children, filed for divorce from Williams citing irreconcilable differences. Then in March 2009, the actor was admitted to the hospital after experiencing chest problems and underwent emergency surgery to replace his aortic valve—forcing him to postpone his one-man show.
Just last month, Williams had checked into a treatment center for several weeks in an effort to “fine-tune and focus on his continued commitment” to sobriety, according to his representative. Williams had famously battled an addiction to cocaine and alcohol early on in his career while playing Mork, a wacky alien in the slapstick sitcom Mork & Mindy.
“Cocaine for me was a place to hide,” Williams told People in 1988. “Most people get hyper on coke. It slowed me down.”
Williams first quit drugs and booze in 1982 following the death of his good friend John Belushi, who died of a drug overdose at the Chateau Marmont, and his first wife Valerie’s pregnancy.
“The Belushi tragedy was frightening,” Williams said. “His death scared a whole group of show-business people. It caused a big exodus from drugs. And for me, there was the baby coming. I knew I couldn't be a father and live that sort of life.”
When asked by The Guardian in 2010 if the death of his close friend and former Juilliard classmate, Christopher Reeve, made him return to the bottle, Williams replied, “No, it’s more selfish than that. It’s just literally being afraid. And you think, ‘Oh, this will ease the fear.’ And it doesn’t.”
But to millennials, Williams will always be remembered as a family-friendly frondeur; a lovably eccentric ball of comedic energy that would do anything—I mean anything—for a laugh, from his swashbuckling turn as man-child Peter Pan in Hook to voicing the gonzo Genie in Disney’s Aladdin to posing as an old English granny in the blockbuster comedy Mrs. Doubtfire.
Williams, however, didn’t just play a huge role in the lives of children; he was a malleable, adaptable comedian who could cater to audiences young and old, gay and straight. Take his outré turn as gay Miami nightclub owner Armand Goldman in Mike Nichols’ The Birdcage (a personal favorite), which saw him shift from flamboyant scenery-chewer to composed pseudo-Republican parent at the drop of a hat. Or as Joey, the sleazy, besieged used car salesman in Cadillac Man.
He was one of the first great modern day ad-libbers, unleashing all-out joke assaults on unsuspecting audiences. Williams was such a gifted improviser that the Mork staff would leave large portions of the show’s scripts blank to accommodate his riffage, transforming improv into an art form. The improv-heavy Judd Apatow Comedy Factory, which counts Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, and others as members, owes a great deal to the efforts of Williams.
And he was a fearless comedian. No topic was off-limits. From God (“Do you think God gets stoned? I think so… look at the platypus.”) to then-President George W. Bush (“People say satire is dead. It’s not dead; it’s alive and living in the White House.”) to immigration (“The Statue of Liberty is no longer saying, ‘Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses.’ She’s got a baseball bat and yelling, ‘You want a piece of me?’”).
When asked by Marlo Thomas, author of the book Growing Up Laughing, what his favorite joke was, Williams provided the following:
“Guy buys a parrot that is constantly using foul language. Really horrible stuff. Finally the guy gets fed up and throws the parrot in the freezer to punish him. After about an hour, he hears a faint tapping sound from inside the freezer and opens the door. There's the parrot, wings wrapped around himself, shivering. He says, ‘I swear, I’ll never, ever curse again. But can I ask you a question? What did the chicken do?’”
Despite his zany comedic persona, Williams imbued his performances with a degree of pathos, as the aforementioned divorced father pining for his children in Mrs. Doubtfire, or the disillusioned dad who pines for his halcyon childhood days in Hook. So it came as no surprise that Williams also wowed when it came to drama. He earned his second Best Actor Oscar nomination for his towering performance as John Keating, an English teacher who inspires his class of jaded, rich teens to carpe diem in Dead Poets Society. His fourth Oscar nod resulted in his only win—as the compassionate therapist to Matt Damon’s tortured genius in Good Will Hunting.
The speech he delivers to Damon’s Will Hunting in said film saw Williams completely shed his humorous veneer, resulting in a scene of beautiful vulnerability that seared itself into the minds of cinemagoers:
“I’d ask you about love, you’d probably quote me a sonnet,” he says. “But you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on Earth just for you. Who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn’t know what it’s like to be her angel, to have that love for her, be there forever, through anything, through cancer. And you wouldn’t know about sleeping sitting up in the hospital room for two months, holding her hand, because the doctors could see in your eyes, that the terms ‘visiting hours’ don’t apply to you. You don’t know about real loss, ’cause it only occurs when you’ve loved something more than you love yourself.”
After his Best Supporting Actor Oscar win, Williams continued his impressive string of dramatic turns, like his role as the sadistic killer in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, or his creepiest turn ever—as a lonely pharmacy photo processor who stalks a family in One Hour Photo.
Williams’ upcoming films—both of which he completed shooting on—include reprising his turn as Theodore Roosevelt in Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, in theaters Dec. 19, and the comedy A Friggin’ Christmas Miracle, opposite Joel McHale. He’d also signed on to reprise his role as Mrs. Doubtfire in a sequel to be directed by Chris Columbus. His CBS series The Crazy Ones, meanwhile, was canceled on May 10 after just one season.
Williams is survived by his wife, Susan Schneider, and his three children.
Several of Williams’ fellow comedians and friends took to Twitter to react to his death, including Mara Wilson, who played Williams’ onscreen daughter in Mrs. Doubtfire:
And President Obama released the following statement:
“Robin Williams was an airman, a doctor, a genie, a nanny, a president, a professor, a bangarang Peter Pan, and everything in between. But he was one of a kind. He arrived in our lives as an alien—but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit. He made us laugh. He made us cry. He gave his immeasurable talent freely and generously to those who needed it most—from our troops stationed abroad to the marginalized on our own streets. The Obama family offers our condolences to Robin’s family, his friends, and everyone who found their voice and their verse thanks to Robin Williams.”
Not bad for a guy whose high school classmates voted him “least likely to succeed.”