5 Essential Robin Williams Stories

4 minute read

This Tuesday marks the one-year anniversary of Robin Williams’ surprising death. In honor of the milestone, here are five essential TIME stories chronicling his remarkable career:

The introduction: The first full-fledged TIME article about Williams (excluding a capsule review of Mork & Mindy that ran earlier that fall) was this Oct. 1978 story about how the comic’s career was destined to be much more than Mork.

Most of Williams’ characters are children of his imagination–an imagination nurtured during the requisite lonely childhood. The last child of a vice president of the Ford Motor Co., Robin was born in Chicago and grew up in the posh Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills. His two half brothers were already grown when he was born, and Robin spent hours alone in the family’s immense house, tape-recording television routines of comics and sneaking up to the attic to practice his imitations. “My imagination was my friend, my companion,” he recalls.

Subscribers can read the whole story here, in the TIME Vault: The Robin Williams Show

The cover story: Not a year had gone by before Williams was on the cover of TIME, for a story about what it took to top the ratings.

It could be argued that Williams landed in the right role in the right time slot (8 p.m., when children control the nation’s sets). But Williams is not so much lucky as talented. In his stand-up nightclub act, which he does for free, to keep in touch with live audiences and to try out new material, he displays a range that encompasses Jonathan Winters, Danny Kaye, Steve Martin and Daffy Duck. Though always wearing the same costume–baggy pants, loud shirts, suspenders–he whips in and out of a multitude of comic characterizations. He can mimic the cadences of Shakespeare, many foreign languages, an ark of animals, various machines. His act includes a redneck used-car salesman, a Russian comic, a gay director, a touchingly mad grandpa.

Subscribers can read the whole issue here, in the TIME Vault: Chaos in Television

The next step: By the time Richard Schickel reviewed Good Morning, Vietnam in 1987, Williams was firmly enshrined as “the decade’s reigning comic soloist.” In a full-page feature accompanying the review, Richard Corliss reported on Williams’ transition from successful comic to full-on movie star.

Williams needed to find a movie that dirtied his shirt, that liberated his pinwheeling raunch. Now he has. Goodbye, straight-man straitjacket. Good Morning, Vietnam.

Subscribers can read the whole story here, in the TIME Vault: Playtime for Gonzo

The interview: In 2011, around the time of Williams’ Broadway debut, Belinda Luscombe spoke to the actor about the world, his career and the perils of fame.

Is being funny sometimes a hindrance to social interaction?

I was once walking in an airport, and a woman came up to me and said, “Be zany!” That’d be like walking up to Baryshnikov and going, “Plié! Just do a plié! Do it! Do a relevé right now! Lift my wife up!”

Read the full Q&A, free of charge, here on Time.com: 10 Questions for Robin Williams

Read the outtakes here: 10 More Questions With Robin Williams

The end: When news broke of Williams’ death, TIME published a special issue remembering the man and his work. At its center was a stirring remembrance by Richard Corliss, who captured just why those two personas—the human being, the comic—had touched so many people.

For all his serious film roles, which garnered him a Supporting Actor Oscar (for Good Will Hunting) and three Best Actor nominations, Williams at his purest was the id unleashed, geysering nonstop shtick of the highest order. “You’re only given one little spark of madness,” he said. “If you lose that, you’re nothin’.” His spark was a forest fire, a comic conflagration that warmed the world and damaged no one.

Perhaps excepting himself. Addicted to cocaine and alcohol, Williams also made frequent guest appearances at rehab clinics, held over by his own demand. His wild ways exhausted two wives and widowed the third, Susan Schneider, whom by all accounts he adored. He suffered from depression, not a rare malady for comedians, and surrendered to it on Aug. 11, when he hanged himself in his Tiburon, Calif., home. Rigor mortis had already set in when his personal assistant found him. Williams was 63.

Read the full obituary, free of charge, here on Time.com: The Heart of Comedy

Robin Williams' Life in Pictures

Robin Williams life in pictures
Robin Williams in the 8th grade at Detroit Country Day School in Birmingham, Mich. in 1965.Courtesy Williams Family
Robin Williams life in pictures
In the 8th grade, Robin Williams, #15, played on the basketball team at Detroit Country Day School.Seth Poppel—Yearbook Library
Robin Williams life in pictures
Robin Williams in high school.Courtesy Robin Williams
Robin Williams Popeye 1980
Williams' played the spinach-loving sailor Popeye in its eponymous 1980 film.Paramount/AP
Robin Williams life in pictures
Robin Williams in September of 1981Steve Ringman—San Francisco Chronicle/Corbis
Robin Williams life in pictures
Robin Williams with his mom, Laurie Williams, during the premiere of "Moscow on The Hudson" at Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, Calif in 1984.Ron Galella—Wire Image/Getty Images
Robin Williams life in pictures
Robin Williams and Christopher Reeve at Silver Friedman's "The Original Improvisation" in New York in 1988.Jim Demetropoulos—Retna Ltd./Corbis
Robin Williams life in pictures
Robin Williams, third from right, dressed as a cheerleader on Nov. 12, 1979 with the Broncos' Pony Express cheerleaders during the filming of an episode of "Mork & Mindy," in Denver.AP
Robin Williams 1987
Robin Williams played radio DJ Adrian Cronauer in director Barry Levinson's comedy drama, Good Morning Vietnam in 1987.Touchstone Pictures/AP
Williams taught a generation to seize the day, to make their lives extraordinary, as John Keating in Dead Poets Society.Buena Vista Pictures
Williams played a grown up version of Peter Pan in the 1991 family classic Hook.TriStar Pictures
Williams lent his substantial talents to voicing Genie in Disney's 1992 animated film Aladdin.Disney
Household chores were no match for Robin Williams as he donned layers of prosthetics to play Mrs. Doubtfire in the 1993 movie of the same name.20th Century Fox
Williams starred as Alan Parrish, a boy stuck inside a board game for twenty-six years in the 1995 film Jumanji.TriStar Pictures
Starring opposite a young Matt Damon, Williams played Dr. Sean Maguire, in the 1997 film Good Will Hunting.Miramax
Williams played a living android in the 1999 film Bicentennial Man.Buena Vista
Williams took on the likeness of Teddy Roosevelt in Ben Stiller's Night at the Museum.20th Century Fox
Robin Williams Death
Robin Williams and his family are seen with their dogs on May 2005. From left to right: Kiwi (poodle), son Cody Williams, Robin Williams, daughter Zelda Williams, Marsha Williams and Mizu (poodle)Lacy Atkins—Emily Scott Pottruck/Trails of Devotion

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