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Robin Williams’ warp-speed improvisation was almost too fast to be human

Academy Award winning actor Robin Williams jokes with reporters as he arrives for the Los Angeles premiere of the film "One Hour Photo" in Beverly Hills, California, in this file picture taken August 22, 2002.


Robin Williams is silent. That sentence seems incomprehensible. The 63-year-old comedian and Oscar-winning actor, who was found dead Monday of an apparent suicide at his Marin County home, was an unparalleled comic improviser, famed for his speed-talking style that suggested stream-of-consciousness at warp speed.

Williams blended riffs from high and low culture, impressions, sound effects and character voices. His was a new style of rocket-age humour, seemingly almost too fast to be human. It's little wonder he first came to fame on television playing an alien, in the hit 1970s series Mork & Mindy. He went on to establish a successful movie career, including four Oscar nominations and one win, in a wide range of movies, including critical hits, animated hits, and popular crowd-pleasers.

His critical successes include the performance that best captures his early revolutionary style, as a speed-talking DJ in Good Morning Vietnam (1987), which earned him his first of four Oscar nominations. That was followed by Dead Poets Society (1989), The Fisher King (1991), and Good Will Hunting (1997), for which he won an Oscar for best supporting actor. As well, Williams had hits with Popeye (1980), Aladdin (1992), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), The Birdcage (1996), Night at the Museum (2006) and Happy Feet (2006). In addition, Williams won four Grammys for his comedy records and one for children's recording.

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Williams was rarely selective in his choice of material, and joked to one interviewer: "There were years where they were actually advertising movies as, this is a movie without Robin Williams."

Some of this hurt his critical reputation. Over the years, Williams' early dazzling articulateness became excessively familiar, and seemed somewhat reflexive. As well, some of his movie choices, such as Patch Adams and Old Dogs, were excessively mawkish. But there were also darker roles, including Insomnia and One Hour Photo, both in 2002, and Bobcat Goldthwait's World's Greatest Dad (2010), in which he played a writer who profited from his son's accidental death, that represent some of his most galvanizing screen work. Fans were often surprised to find that Williams was a classically-trained actor from a wealthy background (his father was a senior executive at the Ford Motor Company). After enrolling at Juilliard in 1973, he was one of only two students (the other was Christopher Reeve) accepted into dialect acting class with the legendary John Houseman.

His alien character Mork first appeared on Garry Marshall's Happy Days before Marshall created the spin-off Mork & Mindy (1978-1982), with Williams acting opposite Pam Dawber. The show, which was structured in a way to leave room for Williams's verbal and physical improvisations, brought Mork's catch-phrase "Na-Nu, Na-Nu" into the language. That was followed by a successful stand-up career, including three hit HBO specials. He was also co-host of the Academy Awards in 1986.

Williams, who partied with his friend the late John Belushi, made no secret of his problems with cocaine abuse in the early 1980s. Belushi's death helped him stop doing drugs. ("Was it a wake-up call? Oh yeah, on a huge level," he said. " The grand jury helped too.") In 2006, Williams admitted himself to a rehabilitation centre for alcoholism. While he was an enthusiastic cyclist, he also had health problems, and had heart surgery in 2009 to replace an aortic valve, which he said had shocked him into appreciating the smaller things in life "like breath."

Upon the news of his death, presumed a suicide, Williams' publicist Mara Buxbaum told The Hollywood Reporter: "Robin Williams passed away this morning. He has been battling severe depression of late. This is a tragic and sudden loss. The family respectfully asks for their privacy as they grieve during this very difficult time."

In July, his representatives confirmed that Williams was entering the Dan Anderson Renewal Centre in Centre City, Minn., a health centre that runs 12-step-inspired programs. They said, however, that the stay was not in response to drug or drink issues, but that Williams needed a rest after 20 months of working non-stop.

Last year, Williams starred in the CBS television series, The Crazy Ones, as an ad executive who works with his daughter, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar. The show, which was cancelled after one season, featured a guest appearance from his old Mork & Mindy castmate, Pam Dawber. Williams also recently completed the feature film, Angriest Man in Brooklyn, as a curmudgeonly man who is mistakenly told he has 90 minutes to live, and seeks to make amends with his estranged wife and former friends. He also acted in the comedy, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, to be released on Dec. 19.

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More


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