Robin Williams dies in suspected suicide

'Mensch, great talent, genuine soul'

Last updated 13:25 12/08/2014
Sydney Morning Herald

Actor and comedian Robin Williams has been found dead in his home. He was 63.

Williams
KEN HIVELY/Los Angeles Times Zoom
Robin Williams' wife Susan Schneider has paid tribute to the star: 'This morning, I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings. I am utterly heartbroken.'

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Robin Williams spent his career making people laugh. In the wake of his death today comedians, actors and people around the world are grieving.

Williams, the Academy Award winner and comic supernova whose explosions of pop culture riffs and impressions dazzled audiences for decades, died after an apparent suicide.

Police in Marin County, California, released a statement saying the 63-year-old was pronounced dead at his home at 12.02pm on Monday, (NZT 7.02am Tuesday).

The sheriff's office said a preliminary investigation showed the cause of death to be a suicide but "a comprehensive investigation must be completed before a final determination is made".

''This morning, I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings. I am utterly heartbroken,'' said Williams' wife, Susan Schneider.

''On behalf of Robin's family, we are asking for privacy during our time of profound grief.

"As he is remembered, it is our hope the focus will not be on Robin's death, but on the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions."

An investigation into the cause, manner and circumstances of the death was under way, with a forensic examination scheduled for August 12.

Tributes were flooding the internet, from politicians like US President Barack Obama, to New Zealand columnist Michelle A'Court.

Among them was US comedian Steve Martin: "I could not be more stunned by the loss of Robin Williams, mensch, great talent, acting partner, genuine soul."

Last month Williams checked into the Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center near Lindstrom, Minnesota, for several weeks.

"After working back-to-back projects, Robin is simply taking the opportunity to fine-tune and focus on his continued commitment, of which he remains extremely proud," his spokesperson said at the time, according to TMZ.

Williams was open about his struggles with addiction. He went cold turkey after becoming reliant on cocaine and alcohol in the 1980s and was sober for 20 years before relapsing and checking into rehab in 2006.

He spoke to USA Today about his 2006 stint in rehab back in 2010. He revealed how scared he was after he started drinking again because he would often have no recollection of what had happened the night before.

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"I got help when I realised I was just destroying everything," Williams said.

"When you're having blackouts on a regular basis. Blackouts, I joke, are like sleepwalking with activities. But those are really frightening, where you wake up and you have to have people (tell you what you did)," he explained.

"And then you go, 'this is scary'."

From his breakthrough in the late 1970s as the alien in the hit TV show Mork and Mindy, through his standup act and such films as Good Morning Vietnam, the short, barrel-chested Williams ranted and shouted as if just sprung from solitary confinement.

Loud, fast and manic, he parodied everyone from John Wayne to Keith Richards, impersonating a Russian immigrant as easily as a pack of Nazi attack dogs.

He was a riot in drag in Mrs Doubtfire, or as a cartoon genie in Aladdin. He won his Academy Award in a rare, but equally intense dramatic role, as a teacher in the 1997 film Good Will Hunting.

He was no less on fire in interviews. During a 1989 chat with The Associated Press, he could barely stay seated in his hotel room, or even mention the film he was supposed to promote, as he free-associated about comedy and the cosmos.

"There's an Ice Age coming," he said, "but the good news is there'll be daiquiris for everyone and the Ice Capades will be everywhere. The lobster will keep for at least 100 years, that's the good news. The Swanson dinners will last a whole millennium. The bad news is the house will basically be in Arkansas."

Like so many funnymen, he had serious ambitions, winning his Oscar for his portrayal of an empathetic therapist in Good Will Hunting.

He also played for tears in Awakenings, Dead Poets Society and What Dreams May Come, something that led New York Times critic Stephen Holden to once say he dreaded seeing the actor's "Humpty Dumpty grin and crinkly moist eyes".

Williams also won three Golden Globes, for Good Morning, Vietnam, Mrs Doubtfire and The Fisher King.

His other film credits included Robert Altman's Popeye (a box office bomb), Paul Mazursky's Moscow on the Hudson, Steven Spielberg's Hook and Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry. On stage, Williams joined fellow comedian Steve Martin in a 1988 Broadway revival of Waiting for Godot.

His personal life was often short on laughter. He had acknowledged drug and alcohol problems in the 1970s and '80s and was among the last to see John Belushi before the Saturday Night Live star died of a drug overdose in 1982.

Williams announced in recent years that he was again drinking but rebounded well enough to joke about it during his recent tour. "I went to rehab in wine country," he said, "to keep my options open".

Born in Chicago in 1951, Williams would remember himself as a shy kid who got some early laughs from his mother - by mimicking his grandmother. He opened up more in high school when he joined the drama club and he was accepted into the Juilliard Academy, where he had several classes in which he and Christopher Reeve were the only students and John Houseman was the teacher.

Encouraged by Houseman to pursue comedy, Williams identified with the wildest and angriest of performers: Jonathan Winters, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin. Their acts were not warm and lovable. They were just being themselves.

"You look at the world and see how scary it can be sometimes and still try to deal with the fear," he told the AP in 1989.

"Comedy can deal with the fear and still not paralyse you or tell you that it's going away. You say, OK, you got certain choices here, you can laugh at them and then once you've laughed at them and you have expunged the demon, now you can deal with them. That's what I do when I do my act."

He unveiled Mork, the alien from the planet Ork, in an appearance on Happy Days, and was granted his own series, which ran from 1978-82.

In subsequent years, Williams often returned to television - for appearances on Saturday Night Live, for Friends, for comedy specials and for American Idol, where in 2008 he pretended to be a "Russian idol" who belts out a tuneless, indecipherable My Way.

Williams also could handle a script, when he felt like it, and also think on his feet. He ad-libbed in many of his films and was just as quick in person. During a media tour for Awakenings, when director Penny Marshall mistakenly described the film as being set in a "menstrual hospital", instead of "mental hospital", Williams quickly stepped in and joked: "It's a period piece."

Winner of a Grammy in 2003 for best spoken comedy album, Robin Williams - Live 2002, he once likened his act to the daily jogs he took across the Golden Gate Bridge. There were times he would look over the edge, one side of him pulling back in fear, the other insisting he could fly.

"You have an internal critic, an internal drive that says, 'OK, you can do more.' Maybe that's what keeps you going," Williams said. "Maybe that's a demon. ... Some people say, 'It's a muse.' No, it's not a muse! It's a demon! DO IT YOU BASTARD!! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!! THE LITTLE DEMON!!"

WHERE TO GET HELP:

  • Lifeline: 0800 543 354 - Provides 24 hour telephone counselling

  • Youthline: 0800 376 633 or free text 234 - Provides 24 hour telephone and text counselling services for young people

  • Samaritans: 0800 726 666 - Provides 24 hour telephone counselling.

  • Tautoko: 0508 828 865 - provides support, information and resources to people at risk of suicide, and their family, whānau and friends.

  • Alcohol & Drug Helpline 0800 787 797  

  • Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (noon to 11pm)

  • Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (4pm - 6pm weekdays)

If it is an emergency or you feel you or someone you know is at risk, please call 111

For information about suicide prevention, see http://www.spinz.org.nz.

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