The Genius And Art Of Robin Williams
Robin Williams (1951-2014) was one of the most loved and respected American actors of the 21st century. The Robin Williams story is filled with both laughter and tears. In this addition of our artist biographies, we will be sharing with you a detailed account of the life of Robin Williams.
While Robin Williams was mostly known for his comedic roles and stand-up comedy routines, he was considered by many to be one of the finest dramatic actors around as well. His teachers at Juilliard labeled him a “genius” early on and his genius lit up the stages and screens of the world for over 30 years.
The Reality Of Genius
While Robin Williams was known as a genuinely funny and quick-witted man, it is important to understand that the nature of his genius derived from the study and practice he put into his craft. While he was the master of improv, it came from a genuine drive to excel at comedic art. He drew his material from his own life and from observations of life around him; but he also recognized the influence of other comedians on his work and actively studied how they handled their craft. One of the reasons that Robin Williams became such a superstar of comedy was the dedication he had to his craft. He took a native genius for comedy and learned the skills to make it into an art.
How It All Began
Robin Williams was born in Chicago Illinois in 1951and was described as a quiet and introspective child. His childhood was marked by the absence of his mother and father due to the fact that both parents worked, which was unusual in the era of the 50s and early 60s. By the time he was 12, the family had moved to Detroit and boyhood friends there remember him as being very funny. Williams also showed that he was very bright and capable in school, but by his high school years in Larkspur he distinguished himself by being voted “Most Likely Not to Succeed” as well as “Funniest” for the graduating class of 1969.
College, Juilliard and the Open Road
Even though comedy had become an increasingly important part of Robin William's life, he did not launch into studying acting right out of high school. He enrolled at Claremont College in California with a major in Political Science. After a bit of studying there, he switched his focus to acting and left Claremont to enroll at the College of Marin. There Robin Williams studied for three years but did not finish. He applied to Juilliard in New York, one of the arts and drama schools in the world. He was one of 20 students accepted in 1973. He was also accepted into the special advanced studies there taught by John Houseman. There was only one other student accepted into the advanced program with him, an actor called Christopher Reeve. After less than 4 years at Juilliard, Robin Williams left. He was encouraged by Houseman to leave the school as Houseman felt that there was nothing more for him to learn there. Many of his teachers and schoolmates remember him and were struck by the genius that lay behind his craft.
The Stand-Up Comedy
Robin Williams did not start doing stand-up comedy after he left Juilliard; he started performing years earlier after his family first moved to California. All through the Marin County and New York years he would practice his act in a variety of clubs. This is where he began to identify and study comedians who would become his greatest influences. Of them all, the two most important were Jonathan Winters and Richard Pryor.
The Robin Williams Story: The Influence of Winters and Pryor
Robin Williams often used his later interviews to pay his respects to Jonathan Winters, the comedian he placed at the top of his list of influences. What Robin Williams said he admired most about Winters was that he was able to do both a structured comedic set, and then to launch into a free-form style that still held together. He wasn’t breaking role, or script, but finding ways on the spur of the moment to add to the overall effect. For Robin it established the idea that pacing allowed for you to go in and out of topics and characters with ease without losing the audience or the forward movement. Richard Pryor held a much different appeal to him. Unlike the very defined characters and limits of Winters and other comedians that he admired, Pryor stood out in his mind as one of the few that dared to use his personal life and struggles as source material. It was from Winters that he learned that there is humor in everything, and from Pryor that he began to see that the humor in the self could let audiences connect with him even more.
Enter Dr. Strangelove
It was seeing Peter Sellers, another comedic influence, in his multi-part role in the film “Dr. Strangelove” that began to open Williams’ eyes to the range of comedic acting that could be possible through the creation of characters. That was something that Winters did frequently, but Sellers perfected it in his role. He also was known to cherish his copy of an early recording of Sellers’ “Goon Show.” The intelligent styling, coupled with slapstick and improvisation while maintaining the integrity of a character helped to create the opportunities for Robin that then led to his early TV and film roles, and eventually his break-out work.
The Early Roles
Coming off a series of successful recordings of his comedy shows from venues such as the Copacabana and the Met, Robin was given small parts on shows like the Laugh-In Revival and The Richard Pryor Show. From there, he was asked to audition for a small but recurring role on the hit sitcom Happy Days, playing an alien named “Mork.” Almost all of acting he did as Mork on Happy Days was improvised and included a lot of physical comedy as well. The character was so popular that the network spun off a series just for him, Mork and Mindy with Pam Dawber. He was cast as the lead in the film “Popeye,” and then had a significant part in “The World According to Garp,” as well of several other small films. None of the films were commercial successes, but they did allow Robin Williams to show off his full range of talent.
The Breakout Films
The role that changed everything in Williams’ life was being cast as the lead in “Good Morning, Vietnam.” Robin Williams caught the attention of the world as the funny, irreverent, and desperate DJ broadcasting for soldiers during the Vietnam War. He went from someone who people had heard of to a household name almost overnight. His string of successful comedic roles that followed firmly established him as a force to be contended with. Whether voicing the genie in “Aladdin,” cross-dressing as a desperate dad in Mrs. Doubtfire, or raging through the bitter sweetness of “Patch Adams.” People showed up to see Williams be funny. He had notable roles in other comedy movies such as – Happy Feet, The Baron Munchausen, Hook, and more.
The Dramatic Actor
While Robin Williams was gaining worldwide recognition for his comedic roles and stand-up, Robin Williams was appearing more in dramatic movies that showcased his genius. These movies didn’t generate the kind of recognition and buzz that his comedy roles did because he “wasn’t doing a Robin Williams,” he was portraying some very complex characters. His first notes dramatic role was “The Fisher King,” in which he played a homeless man, and then “Moscow on the Hudson.” In these roles, Williams was still playing safe as they allowed for flights of comedy as if the directors wanted to remind the audience who was in the role. With roles as the psychotherapist in “Good Will Hunting,” the teacher in “Dead Poets Society” and the doctor in “Awakenings” he began to build his dramatic credibility with producers and directors. Many of his “greatest fans” for his comedy were unaware of his very successful turns both killers and thrillers in “One Hour Photo” and “Insomnia.” He also had several very successful runs on stage, including one in “Waiting for Godot.” Before his death at the age of 63, Robin Williams had 5 films completed and yet to be released that carried that strange balance of funny and dramatic that had become his hallmark.
The Man Who Became the master
Robin Williams left a legacy – not just of comedy, but of acting. His range and repertoire was astonishing. In an era when most actors cannot lose themselves in a role, Robin Williams had mastered this art, while also staying powerfully enough connected to his own persona to headline shows as well. He was not just a genius at his craft, but he became a master of it through hard work and study of the comedians and actors that he admired most. He left a legacy of films for his fans to enjoy, but he left an even more important legacy for aspiring actors and comedians about how one goes about becoming a master of the trade and learns to continue perfecting and growing one’s craft.