Williams, Robin (1952- ), American actor and stand-up comic of distinctive energy and invention, particularly in terms of his improvisational skills. An only child, Robin McLaurim Williams was born in Chicago on July 21, 1952, to Robert Williams, a Ford Motor Company executive, and Laurie Williams, a former model. He grew up in the wealthy Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., a shy and lonely boy who watched a great deal of television and enjoyed figuring out new ways to make his mother laugh. A particular influence even then was Jonathan Winters, whose astonishing ability with accents and a diverse range of off-kilter characters made him a favorite of Williams's.
In the late 1960s the Williams family relocated to San Francisco. After graduating from high school in 1970, Williams tried majoring in political science at a small California college before deciding to study drama at another small institution (from which he did not graduate). He then took the risky step of auditioning for the prestigious, and still relatively new, three-year acting program at the Juilliard School in New York City. He was awarded a scholarship and quickly established a reputation for an inspired, if usually undisciplined, zaniness. Although once again Williams failed to complete college (he quit shortly before he was due to graduate and returned to San Francisco), he found his wild style perfectly suited to stand-up comedy.
Williams's breakthrough came in 1978, when he was cast as the lovable, if rather manic, alien Mork in the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) series Mork & Mindy. The show was an overnight sensation, ran for four seasons, and garnered Williams dozens of film opportunities. Through the 1980s many of these were poorly chosen; for example, Robert Altman's lavish version of Popeye (1980), with Williams in the title role, was a failure, as was his ambitious stab at dramatic acting in George Roy Hill's adaptation of John Irving's best-seller The World according to Garp (1982). But when Williams had the right vehicle, as he clearly did in Paul Mazursky's Moscow on the Hudson (1984), playing a Russian circus musician who defects, and in Barry Levinson's Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), portraying an Armed Forces Radio disk jockey, the results were both heartwarming and impressive. The latter also earned him his first Academy Award nomination.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Williams turned to more dramatic roles, first that of a dedicated prep school teacher in Peter Weir's Dead Poets Society (1989), which won him a second Oscar nomination, and then the part of a slightly deranged street person in The Fisher King (1991), directed by Terry Gilliam, which earned him his third. He also made his professional theatrical debut during this period, starring with Steve Martin in Mike Nichols's 1988 off-Broadway production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. For the rest of the 1990s Williams's work fluctuated between maudlin and brilliant, the latter most notably as the blue genie in the 1992 animated version of Aladdin and as a divorced father who disguises himself as a dowdy housekeeper in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993). He also gave an appealing performance as a gay nightclub owner in The Birdcage (1996), directed by Mike Nichols, and his role as a psychiatrist in Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting (1997) won him a best supporting actor Oscar.
Williams appeared in a pair of sentimental films, the drama What Dreams May Come and the comedy Patch Adams, in 1998, and the following year he starred in Jakob the Liar, an earnest but misdirected Holocaust drama, and Bicentennial Man, about a robot yearning to become human. The year 2002 saw Williams take on a trio of against-type, unsympathetic roles: a vengeful children's TV-show host in Death to Smoochy; a shrewd, articulate killer taunting Al Pacino's flawed detective in Insomnia; and a lonely photo lab technician turned stalker in One Hour Photo. The winner of three Grammy Awards (1979, 1987, 1988), for best comedy performance, Williams continues to perform stand-up comedy.
Kathy O'Connell Record-Journal, Meriden, Conn. MyWikiBiz