Robin McLaurin Williams was born in Chicago, Illinois, on July 21, 1951. His mother, Laurie McLaurin (c. 1923 – September 4, 2001), was a former model from Jackson, Mississippi, whose own great-grandfather was Mississippi senator and governor Anselm J. McLaurin. His father, Robert Fitzgerald Williams (September 10, 1906 – October 18, 1987), was a senior executive at Ford Motor Company in charge of the Midwest region. Williams had English, Welsh, Irish, Scottish, German, and French ancestry. He was raised in the Episcopal Church (while his mother practiced Christian Science), and later authored the comedic list, “Top Ten Reasons to be an Episcopalian.”
Williams attended elementary school in Lake Forest, Illinois and began middle school there. His young friends recall him as being very funny. When Williams’s father was transferred to Detroit, the family moved from the Chicago area to a 40-room farm house in suburban Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where he was a student at the Detroit Country Day School. He excelled in school and became president of the class. He was on the school’s soccer team and wrestling team. In middle school, Williams was bullied and would seek out new routes home to avoid his tormentors. He told jokes to his mother to make her laugh and pay attention to him. Williams spent much of his time alone in the family’s large home, playing with his 2,000 toy soldiers. “My only companions, my only friends as a child were my imagination,” he said.
Williams’s father was away much of the time and, when he was home, Williams found him “frightening”. His mother worked too, leaving Williams to be attended to by the maids they employed. Williams claimed his upbringing left him with an acute fear of abandonment and a condition he described as “Love Me Syndrome.” When Williams was 16, his father took early retirement and the family moved to Woodacre, California, where he attended the public Redwood High School in nearby Larkspur. When he graduated in 1969, the senior class voted him both “Most Likely Not to Succeed” and “Funniest.”
Williams studied political science at Claremont McKenna College (then called Claremont Men’s College) in Claremont, California. Williams left Claremont and attained a full scholarship to the esteemed Juilliard School in New York City. In between Claremont and Juilliard, he returned to Marin County and studied theatre for three years at a community college, the College of Marin, where according to drama professor James Dunn, Williams’s talent first became evident when he was cast as Fagin in Oliver! He had two brothers: Robert Todd Williams (June 14, 1938 – August 14, 2007) and McLaurin Smith.
Williams described himself as a quiet child whose first imitation was of his grandmother to his mother. He did not overcome his shyness until he became involved with his high school drama department. In 1973, Williams was one of only 20 students accepted into the freshman class at Juilliard and one of only two students to be accepted by John Houseman into the Advanced Program at the school that year; the other was Christopher Reeve. In his dialects class, Williams had no trouble quickly mastering dialects. Williams left Juilliard in 1976.
After appearing in the cast of the short-lived The Richard Pryor Show on NBC, Williams was cast by Garry Marshall as the alien Mork in a 1978 episode of the hit TV series Happy Days after impressing the producer with his quirky sense of humor when he sat on his head when asked to take a seat for the audition. As Mork, Williams improvised much of his dialogue and physical comedy, speaking in a high, nasal voice. Mork’s appearance was so popular with viewers that it led to a spin-off hit television sitcom, Mork & Mindy, which ran from 1978 to 1982; the show was written to accommodate Williams’s improvisations. Although he played the same character as in his appearance in Happy Days, the show was set in the present day, in Boulder, Colorado, instead of the late 1950s in Milwaukee. Mork was an extremely popular character, featured on posters, coloring books, lunchboxes, and other merchandise. Mork & Mindy was such a success in its first season that Williams appeared on the March 12, 1979, cover of Time magazine, then the leading news magazine in the U.S.
Starting in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, Williams began to reach a wider audience with his stand-up comedy, including three HBO comedy specials, Off The Wall (1978), An Evening with Robin Williams (1982), and Robin Williams: Live at the Met (1986). Also in 1986, Williams co-hosted the 58th Academy Awards. His stand-up work was a consistent thread through his career, as seen by the success of his one-man show (and subsequent DVD) Robin Williams: Live on Broadway (2002). He was voted 13th on Comedy Central’s list “100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time” in 2004.
Williams and Billy Crystal appeared in an unscripted cameo at the beginning of an episode of the third season of Friends. They were in the building where the show was shooting and were asked to improvise their lines. Williams appeared on an episode of the American version of Whose Line Is It Anyway? (Season 3, Episode 9: November 16, 2000). During a game of “Scenes from a Hat”, the scene “What Robin Williams is thinking right now” was drawn, and Williams stated, “I have a career. What the hell am I doing here?” On December 4, 2010, he appeared with Robert De Niro on Saturday Night Live in the sketch “What Up with That”. In 2012, he guest-starred as himself in two FX series, Louie and Wilfred.
In February 2013, CBS announced it had picked up a pilot episode for a David E. Kelley comedy called The Crazy Ones starring Williams. The series was officially picked up on May 10, 2013. Williams played Simon Roberts, a father who works with his daughter (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) in an advertising office. The series premiered on September 26, 2013, and was canceled after one season. Most of Williams’s acting career was in film, although he gave some performances on stage as well (notably as Estragon in a production of Waiting for Godot with Steve Martin). His first film was the 1977 comedy Can I Do It ‘Till I Need Glasses? His performance in Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) earned Williams an Academy Award nomination. Many of his roles have been comedies tinged with pathos.
His role as the Genie in the animated film Aladdin (1992) was instrumental in establishing the importance of star power in voice actor casting. Williams used his voice talents again in Fern Gully, as the holographic Dr. Know in the 2001 film A.I. Artificial Intelligence, in the 2005 animated film Robots, the 2006 Academy Award-winning Happy Feet, and an uncredited vocal performance in the film Everyone’s Hero. He was also the voice of The Timekeeper, a former attraction at the Walt Disney World Resort about a time-traveling robot who encounters Jules Verne and brings him to the future.
Williams’s roles in dramatic films garnered him an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor (for his role as a psychologist in Good Will Hunting), as well as two previous Academy Award nominations (for playing an English teacher in Dead Poets Society (1989), and for playing a troubled homeless man in The Fisher King (1991)). Also in 1991, he played an adult Peter Pan in the movie Hook. Other acclaimed dramatic films include Moscow on the Hudson (1984), Awakenings (1990), and What Dreams May Come (1998). In the 2002 film Insomnia, Williams portrayed a writer/killer on the run from a sleep-deprived Los Angeles policeman (played by Al Pacino) in rural Alaska. Also in 2002, in the psychological thriller One Hour Photo, Williams played an emotionally disturbed photo development technician who becomes obsessed with a family for whom he has developed pictures for a long time.
In 2006, Williams starred in The Night Listener, a thriller about a radio show host who realizes that a child with whom he has developed a friendship may or may not exist; that year, he starred in five movies, including Man of the Year, was the Surprise Guest at the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards, and appeared on an episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition that aired on January 30, 2006. Williams was known for his improvisational skills and impersonations, and his performances frequently involved impromptu humor designed and delivered in rapid-fire succession while on stage. According to the Aladdin DVD commentary, most of his dialogue as the Genie was improvised.
At one point, he was in the running to play the Riddler in Batman Forever until director Tim Burton dropped the project. Earlier, Williams had been a strong contender to play the Joker in Batman. He had expressed interest in assuming the role in The Dark Knight, the sequel to 2005’s Batman Begins, although the part of the Joker was played by Heath Ledger, who won, posthumously, the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He was portrayed by Chris Diamantopoulos in the made-for-TV biographical film Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of Mork & Mindy (2005), documenting the actor’s arrival in Hollywood as a struggling comedian.
On June 4, 1978, Robin Williams married his first wife, Valerie Velardi. They met in 1976 when he worked as a bartender at a tavern in San Francisco. Their son Zachary Pym “Zak” Williams was born on April 11, 1983. During Williams’s first marriage, he was involved in an extramarital relationship with Michelle Tish Carter, a cocktail waitress whom he met in 1984. She sued him in 1986, claiming that he did not tell her he was infected with the herpes simplex virus before he embarked on a sexual relationship with her in the mid-1980s, during which, she said, he transmitted the virus to her. The case was settled out of court. Williams and Velardi divorced in 1988.
On April 30, 1989, he married Marsha Garces, a Filipino American and Zachary’s nanny, who was several months pregnant with his child. They had two children, Zelda Rae Williams (born July 31, 1989) and Cody Alan Williams (born November 25, 1991). In March 2008, Garces filed for divorce from Williams, citing irreconcilable differences. Williams married his third wife, graphic designer Susan Schneider, on October 23, 2011, in St. Helena, California. Their residence was Williams’s house in Sea Cliff, a neighborhood in San Francisco, California. Of what gives him a sense of wonder, Williams stated, “My children give me a great sense of wonder. Just to see them develop into these extraordinary human beings.”
In mid-2014, Williams had admitted himself into the Hazelden Foundation Addiction Treatment Center in Lindstrom, Minnesota, for continued sobriety treatment related to his alcoholism. According to his publicist, Williams suffered from depression. At around 11:45 a.m. (PDT) on August 11, 2014, Williams was discovered by his personal assistant at his home in Paradise Cay, an unincorporated enclave of the town of Tiburon, California. About ten minutes later, county emergency 911 dispatchers received a telephone call reporting Williams was unresponsive and not breathing. The Marin County Sheriff’s Office and firefighters from two local fire protection districts immediately responded to the scene, and Williams was pronounced dead shortly after they arrived, at 12:02 p.m. (PDT). To prevent unauthorized photos from being taken or disclosed (since Marin County has no county morgue), Williams’s body was brought to the Napa County morgue for autopsy by Marin County’s chief forensic pathologist, Dr. Joseph Cohen.
At a press conference on August 12, 2014, the Coroner Division of the Marin County Sheriff’s Office disclosed that Williams had apparently hanged himself with a belt, and that the cause of death based on preliminary autopsy results was “asphyxia due to hanging.” Results from toxicology tests are expected in two to six weeks. On the day after Williams died, August 12, 2014, the winners of the 2014 Fields Medal were announced. The medal, a prize in mathematics that is awarded once every four years, was brought to popular attention in Good Will Hunting (1997). Williams won the Academy Award for his supporting role as a psychologist in that film, in which he described the Fields Medal as “a really big deal.”
- July, 21, 1951
- Chicago, Illinois
- August, 11, 2014
- Tiburon, California
Cause of Death