Dhaka Courier

Robin Williams: The ‘Captain’ of the laughter

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Robin Williams

He was a comic genius who had only one speed - full throttle. From the moment he decided to showcase his true self to the world, he amazed every one with his talent. Yet, behind the laughter- this majestic comedian was a man who was deeply plagued by depression, along with other demons such as alcohol and cocaine. Still he kept his audiences entertained to the very end, before committing suicide at the age of 63. He was ‘the’ Robin McLaurin Williams- the captain of the laughter.

Born in Chicago, Illinois- Robin was the only child of Laurie and Robert Williams. The family was wealthy, with Robert being a senior executive at the Ford Motor Company and Laurie was a former model and part-time actress. Much of Robin’s formative years were spent alone in their huge mansion, and to cope with his loneliness- he created characters and conversations in his head. He was an overweight child who got consistently bullied at school- and his only friends were the ones he created in his imagination. The hardship of these early years brought on a deep seated state of depression that Robin was to grapple with, for the rest of his life.

Robin began to use comedy as a defense mechanism, which started with his mother. In order to connect with her, Robin had to make his mother laugh- he had to be the ‘funny Robin’. When he was 16, the family had relocated to California where Robin attended Redwood High School. It was the late sixties, and the straight laced Robin found himself in the middle of a counterculture that revolved around drugs and sex.

It was at Redwood High that Robin stumbled upon the drama department. He had already perfected his comedic veneer, quickly establishing a reputation as the ‘class clown’- and his comedic persona slowly emerged through the drama classes. At the same time, Robin got involved in wrestling and soccer, proving to be an accomplished athlete. Yet, by the time he graduated college in 1969, he was voted by his classmates as the ‘least likely to succeed’, as well as the ‘funniest student.’ After graduation, Robin attended Claremont Men’s College with a career goal in Political Science. However, he was spending more time in the college theater than in lecture rooms.

During classes he would often improvise, leaving his classmates and teachers in fits of laughter. After three years of honing his craft, he was offered the opportunity of a lifetime - a full scholarship to the Juilliard School of Performing Arts in New York City. Williams was one of only two students who got the scholarship in 1973; the other was future ‘Superman’ actor, Christopher Reeve- who later became a close friend. At Juilliard, Robin astounded everyone including his teachers. He was able to take on the persona of characters with ease; trading out one accent or dialect for another, like he was born to do it. However, Robin was frustrated at Juilliard. One of his instructors considered Robin to be a genius who was not being properly served by the school’s conservative and classical training style. He left Juilliard in 1976, ready to launch himself on the world. His first stop was the stand-up circuit on the West Coast- and that was the start of his stardom.

Robin’s manic edge, quick fire nature and off-the-wall physical comedy proved a hit. He loved the immediate feedback that came from stand-up, and it was something that he would continue to do right through his career. Despite the apparent ease of his performances, he actually found stand-up very stressful. Underneath the cloak of his act, he was an intensely shy man. He once said that he used drugs and alcohol, to combat his stage nerves. In 1977, Williams moved to Los Angeles where he began performing at the Comedy Club. A few days later he got the opportunity to be in ‘Mork & Mindy’ (1978 -1982). The show catapulted Williams to super stardom literally overnight. While the critics were not overly enthused with the show, they were falling over themselves to lavish praise upon its star.

‘Mork & Mindy’ quickly became a pop culture phenomenon- and, Robin went from relative obscurity to instant fame within just a couple of months, for which he was not ready. He began indulging in the excesses that come with fame- drugs, alcohol and women. He quickly slipped into the habit of partying into the early hours, crawling home at 5 in the morning and then having to be on the set by 10. There is no doubt that Robin was blessed with more physical energy than most. Inevitably, however, that energy began to burn out. He would sometimes fall asleep on the set, or just sit dormant in ‘off’ mode. To fight that mishap, he discovered cycling- which he credited for saving his life and even participated in ‘Tour De France’.

His personal life was starting to get pretty interesting. In 1976, Robin met dancer Valerie Velardi while working as a bartender in San Francisco, shortly after leaving Juilliard. They began a relationship and got married on 1978. Valerie endured her husband’s cocaine addiction and wild partying lifestyle for a number of years. It was with the birth of their son, Zachary, on 1983 that he finally managed to shake off his addiction. However, he was unable to control his wandering eye. He ended up having an affair with a cocktail waitress by the name of Michelle Tish Carter. In 1986, Miss Carter sued Williams for $6.4 million, claiming that he had knowingly infected her with herpes simplex virus. He settled out of court, but Valerie divorced him a few months later. Less than a year after the divorce from Valerie, Williams married Marcia Grimes, the former nanny to his son, Zach. At the time of the wedding, Marcia was pregnant with Robin’s child, a daughter who they named Zelda Rae. Two years later, they had a second child, Cody Alan. The marriage endured for 19 years, with Marcia finally leaving, unable to handle Robin’s addiction. Williams married for the third and final time in 2011 to Susan Schneider, a graphic designer at the time. They were together till Robin’s death in 2014.

Robin’s fame on the small screen inevitably aroused the interest of movie makers. His first starring role came in 1980’s ‘Popeye’- a financial and critical flop. But then, in 1982’s ‘The World According to Garp’- he was able to show more of his dramatic acting talents. He got his big screen break in 1987’s ‘Good Morning Vietnam’- The role of Adrian Cronauer, a real life Armed Forces DJ who was stationed in Saigon during the war, was tailor made for Williams’ manic style. In fact, nearly everything that he did on screen was improvised. The performance was good enough to earn him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Over the next decade, Williams appeared in an impressive number of films, displaying a huge range and appeal across the generations. He shone as both a dramatic and a comic actor, with his first and only Oscar coming for Best Supporting Actor playing a psychologist in 1997’s ‘Good Will Hunting’. He had previously received two nominations, for 1988’s ‘Dead Poet’s Society’ which is till date considered as one of the greatest motivational movies of all time- and 1991’s ‘The Fisher King’. Perhaps Williams’ most versatile role was one in which he was never actually on screen. His role as the ‘genie’ in the 1992 Disney animated musical ‘Aladdin’ showcased his amazing vocal range. The role had been specifically written for him, although he improvised much of the dialogue, just as he had done in Good Morning Vietnam. Williams played what would prove to be his most beloved character in 1993’s ‘Mrs Doubtfire’, in which he portrayed a recently divorced actor who takes on the persona of an elderly Scottish housemaid to get closer to his children. He also starred in ‘Jumanji’ in 1995 and ‘Hamlet’ in 1996. His darkest roles came in 2002’s ‘One Hour Photo’ and Christopher Nolan’s ‘Insomnia’. Robin’s last appearance on the big screen was in 2014’s ‘Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb’, in which he reprised his role as President Theodore Roosevelt. In the 2015 animated film ‘Absolutely Anything’, he provided the voice of Dennis the Dog. It closed out a 38 year career with 74 movies.

It is utterly impossible to describe Robin’s eventful life in this single article. He was a philanthropist throughout his whole life. Deep down inside, he had to fight his demons alongside presenting himself as the funniest man alive in the world, before finally taking his own life on August 11th, 2014.  Within hours of the tragic news of his passing, thousands of fans were posting images of themselves in social media, standing on their desks with the caption ‘O’ Captain, my captain’- in reference to Robin’s character in ‘Dead Poet’s Society’. Robin Williams deserved every bit of that love and respect- that can be said for sure.

  • Robin Williams: The ‘Captain’ of the laughter
  • Vol 36
  • Md. Ishtiak Hossain
  • Issue 5
  • DhakaCourier

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