Fly, Robin, Fly
He was a TV sitcom star turned Oscar-winning actor and a stand-up dynamo. Beyond all that, Robin Williams was one of the most beloved figures in entertainment, which made his 2014 suicide that much more of a shock. HBO's new documentary "Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind," which debuts July 16, aims to tell the whole story, but we'll narrow it down for you. Here, with an emphasis on his manic humor, are 20 milestones in the wildly unpredictable career of a comedy legend.
He Kills It on Pre-Mork TV Appearances
In 1977, after an apprenticeship doing stand-up in Los Angeles comedy clubs, Robin Williams got a chance to show off his emerging chops on the NBC comedy special "The Great American Laugh-Off." In less than five minutes, Williams—wearing his soon-to-be-trademark suspenders—riffs on a drugged-out Superman, the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Jacques Cousteau shilling for Union Oil, all the while speaking with a Russian accent. The audience isn't sure what to make of it. But they laugh.
Next Stop: "Happy Days"
When Williams auditioned for the role of the space alien "Mork from Ork" in a 1978 episode of "Happy Days," the show's producers asked him to take a seat—whereupon he planted himself face-first on the couch and stood on his head. Williams got the job, and then stole the show. The studio audience gave him a standing ovation. Said "Happy Days" star Henry "The Fonz" Winkler, "No matter what the script said, he absorbed it. Sucked it in like a sponge and then spat it back out Robin-ized."
Mork Is Unleashed
Recognizing Williams' talent, producer Garry Marshall spun him off into his own half-hour comedy series, "Mork & Mindy," co-starring Pam Dawber. The show ran for four seasons, turning "nanu-nanu" into a universally understood greeting and Williams into a pop culture phenomenon. TV Guide calls "Mork's Mixed Emotions," which aired in Season 1, one of the best sitcom episodes of all time. When Mindy attempts to unlock Mork's emotions with a kiss, all of Williams' improvisational skills are let loose.
Williams Takes to the Field—as a Cheerleader
At a 1979 football game between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots, Williams—dressed in white boots, a sequined mini-skirt and a halter top—trotted out onto the field before a crowd of 74,000 as a member of the Broncos' "Pony Express" cheerleading squad. "We're gonna go out there and win this one for the zipper!" he told delighted Bronco fans.
His First Comedy Album
In the midst of his "Mork & Mindy" success, Williams went on tour with his stand-up act, recording two shows for the comedy album "Reality ... What a Concept." It's vintage Williams: Firing on all cylinders, he bounces back and forth between impressions, channeling characters ranging from Karl Marx to Truman Capote to Mister Rogers. A Top 10 hit on the Billboard chart, the LP went on to win a Grammy for Best Comedy Album.
He's Popeye the Sailor Man
Williams' first starring role in a movie isn't the best or funniest of his career, but there's something wonderful about his dead-on performance as the title character in Robert Altman's 1980 musical comedy, "Popeye." With massive forearms, a one-eyed squint and a corn cob pipe clenched between his teeth, he brings genuine sweetness to this iconic cartoon sailor. And when he sings "I Yam What I Yam," it's impossible not to smile, if not flat-out laugh.
Surprisingly, Williams didn't appear on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" until 1981, well into the fourth season of "Mork & Mindy." But he made the most of it, cracking up Johnny as he riffed on life in a mental institution, impersonated Flipper and stole a sip from the host's coffee mug, assuring him, "Don't be afraid, the sores went away." Carson was to ask Williams back many times.
Live From New York...
Amazingly, when he was starting out, the fast-talking Williams worked as a street mime in San Francisco. And in 1984 he got to show off those skills on "Saturday Night Live," in a sketch titled "Living With a Mime." SNL cast member Brad Hall played his roommate, who becomes increasingly irritated as the white-faced Williams mimics his every move. Finally, Hall shoots him.."I killed a mime," Hall says, stunned by his own action. What follows is a huge applause, as much for Williams' brilliance as for his mime's demise.
Another Brilliant Comedy Album
Released in 1986, "A Night at the Met" was recorded live before a crowd of 4,000 at New York's Metropolitan Opera House. It presents a smorgasbord of bits, with Williams zigzagging from ballet to cocaine to Ronald Reagan to pregnancy to "men's parts." Once again, he won a well-deserved Grammy for Best Comedy Album.
His Breakthrough Movie Role
Earlier films such as "The World According to Garp" and "Moscow on the Hudson" had their comic moments, but Williams hit his big-screen stride in 1987's "Good Morning, Vietnam," playing an irreverent Armed Forces radio DJ during the Vietnam War. When he first takes to the airwaves with a rousing "Gooooooood Morning, Vietnam!!!" and then dives into a monologue that pinballs back and forth on just about every subject known to man, it's Williams at his manic, improvisational best.
A Killer Cameo
He has just a six-minute cameo and the movie flopped, but Williams as the disembodied head known as the King of the Moon in 1988's "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" is weird, very funny and ... weird. The production, already in trouble when Williams signed on, makes the most of his screen time. "He rescued the film," said director Terry Gilliam. "And at least half of Robin's dialogue, if not more, was him ad-libbing." A few years later, Williams starred in Gilliam's better-received "The Fisher King."
Williams was initially reluctant to voice the Genie in Disney's "Aladdin" (1992), but producer Jeffrey Katzenberg won out. Much of the film was tailored to the actor's talents, with animators creating the visuals after Williams improvised his lines rather than following the customary practice of visuals first. Williams also voiced the Peddler in a completely unscripted scene. Most of his ad-libs in that case were deemed inappropriate for a Disney movie, but what's in the film is funny and delightful.
Saying Goodbye to Johnny
Since his first "Tonight Show" appearance, Williams had become a major "get" for every TV talk show. And when Johnny Carson called it quits in 1992, the legendary late-night host chose Williams as one of his two final guests (the other was Bette Midler). Despite the potential for show biz schmaltz, Williams runs rampant, cracking up the audience and, better yet, Carson himself.
'Toys"—Not the Movie, the Trailer
The 1992 fantasy comedy "Toys"—starring Williams as a childlike heir attempting to save his father's toy company—was a major flop. Yet the film's first trailer is brilliant: Williams standing alone in an empty field, speaking straight to the camera and deconstructing the whole idea of the movie trailer itself. He even mocks the studio's efforts to market "Toys" while never even saying what the movie is about.
Williams in Drag
One of the most beloved comedies of the 1990's, "Mrs. Doubtfire"—starring Williams as a recently divorced actor who dresses up as a female housekeeper so he can interact with his children--is filled with hilarious moments. But there's none funnier than when Robin/Mrs. Doubtfire, while cooking a meal, realizes that his/her breasts have caught on fire,
The Art of the One-Liner
When we think of Robin Williams, we think of wild energy and improvisation. Classic one-liners, not so much. But he could deliver those as well. When he made a 1995 appearance on "The Tonight Show," this time hosted by Jay Leno, Williams got off a good one: "I was in the men's room next to David Copperfield. I saw him undo his fly and eight doves flew out."
Teaching the Dancers to Dance
It takes up only a minute of screen time, but Williams' "eclectic celebration of the dance" in 1996's "The Birdcage"—in which he plays a gay nightclub owner—is one of his funniest bits ever. Check out the way Williams parodies famous choreographers as he flutters around the club's stage, instructing the young dancers: "You do Fosse, Fosse, Fosse! You do Martha Graham, Martha Graham, Martha Graham! Or Twyla, Twyla, Twyla! Or Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd! Or Madonna, Madonna, Madonna!... But you keep it all inside," It's simply brilliant.
Robin and Koko
In 2001, Williams paid a visit to the Gorilla Foundation in California and met with Koko, a gorilla who reportedly used American Sign Language to communicate (Koko died in 2018). At the time, Koko was said to be mourning the death of her life-long partner. But in their filmed encounter, Williams and Koko laugh, hug and get into a tickle fight. It's not a hilarious Williams moment, but it is one of the most heartwarming.
He Had It Until the End
Williams, playing a wax statue of Teddy Roosevelt, was key figure in all three of the "Night at the Museum" movies, but died before the 2014 release of the third, "Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb." Still, the magic is there. Director Shawn Levy recalls the filming of the scene where the museum exhibits go haywire: "I told Robin I wanted him to do some weird stuff, and he got the twinkle in his eye and said, 'Leave it to me, boss.' I would just roll the camera and let that guy go. He's doing accents, voices, fast-forwarding his body. He did what no one can do like him."
The Tragic Ending
After a lifetime of making people laugh, there was no humor in the hours before Williams' death by suicide in August 2014. But there still was love. "I was getting in bed and he came in the room a couple of times," said Williams' wife Susan. "He said, 'Goodnight, my love.' And then…'goodnight, goodnight.' That was the last."
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