The death of Hollywood comic superstar Robin Williams, probably by his own hand, aged 63, has shocked the entertainment business and his legions of fans around the world.
A generation grew up laughing with him, and mourns him now.
His career started in the early 1980s after being spotted doing street theatre and building a reputation as a master improviser in clubs. He played an alien in the TV series ‘Mork and Mindy’ and children copied his catchphrases in playgrounds the length of America and beyond.
‘Good Morning Vietnam’ took him into dramatic territory, but although his high-octane Oscar-nominated turn did not win, the public fell in love. He would be nominated four times in all.
‘Dead Poets Society’ followed and made an enormous worldwide impact on young people with Williams’s portrayal of an inspirational teacher.
From the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties it seemed he could do no wrong and his films all did well. But he struggled with depression, bipolarity, alcohol and cocaine, and was publicly frank about it. He also devoted a lot of time to charity work.
‘Mrs Doubtfire’ saw him play a convincing woman, and then finally the Oscars came calling when he played in ‘Good Will Hunting’. But his prolific workrate extended into TV comedy, guest slots, campaign adverts, and always, always, improvisation. He never seemed at a loss for words and his ebullience was infectious.
“I want to thank my father, up there, the man who said when I said I want to be an actor he replied – ‘Wonderful, just have a back-up profession… like welding’,” he joked when making his Oscar acceptance speech.
Celebrities from the world of comedy, film, sports and politics have queued up to express their sorrow. These included a fulsome tribute from President Barack Obama, clearly a fan.
Williams came from wealth, but never forgot those less fortunate, sponsoring a number of individuals through college and university, notably including Oscar-winning actress Jessica Chastain.
He also never forgot his friends, bursting into Christopher Reeves’ hospital room in a doctor’s costume when he was paralysed to cheer him up, and then doing the same several years later with Sharon Osbourne when she was ill.
The performer was bedevilled with personal demons like so many exceptionally creative people. Unlike so many, he was ready to talk about it to increase public awareness.
“It’s been wonderful to know I’m not alone. That’s the main thing. When you come out of rehab, if you know that then you’ve got a great shot. I feel like, shit, what did I look like before,” he said after his most recent lapse, and cure.
For all these reasons and more Williams holds a special place in American society, one of affection and respect, and internationally he proved over the last three decades to be one of Hollywood’s more enduring stars, one who could laugh at himself but, more crucially, make the rest of us laugh, and cry, as well.