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Robin Williams - Biography

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Robin Williams

Personal details

Name: Robin Williams
Born: 21 July 1951 (Age: 64)
Where: Chicago, Illinois, USA
Height: 5' 8"
Awards: Won 1 Oscar, 5 Golden Globes, nominated for 2 BAFTAs

All about this star


Comedians have always had a tough time building a long-term career in cinema. For a start, as genuinely funny scripts are few and far between, they're usually forced to draw on their own well-worn routines and, after a few pictures, begin to bore their audience. No matter how brilliant, no comedian can keep carrying movies by sheer weight of personality, not indefinitely. Eddie Murphy and Steve Martin are proof of that. No, to really last, they must break through that barrier, become accepted as "proper" actors, and VERY few have done that.

Indeed, recently, there's only been one who's managed to take that mighty step. And, in many ways, he was the most unlikely of them all. Known to the world as the gibbering, gurning, beaming alien Mork from Ork, Robin Williams stood a very high chance of never, EVER being taken seriously. How could he be? Mork aside, in his stand-up routines he was a whirlwind of snappy one-liners, brilliant impressions and surreal asides, his ideas falling like rain. His first cinematic breakthrough, Good Morning Vietnam, was just Williams being Williams. So were other mega-hits, Mrs Doubtfire and Aladdin. The Oscar for Good Will Hunting was just for a cameo, really. A fluke. The guy could never really ACT. He'd never be able to stand still long enough.

Yet he could act. In fact, he HAD acted, quite brilliantly, before the box-office hits came. And, when the time came, in 2002, to spread his wings once again, he acted his ass off. Three movies, three characters, all killers but all different. Up against the King of Gravitas Al Pacino, he held his own. And up against the young pretender to the crown, Ed Norton. Now there was no denying it. The lightweight funny-man was actually a heavyweight artist.

He was born Robin McLaurim Williams on the 21st of July, 1951, in Chicago, Illinois, to a well-to-do family. His father, Robert, was an executive for the Ford Motor Company, while his mother, Laurie, was a fashion model. Both had children, by now grown, from earlier relationships. Robert's son Todd would later own a winery (and appear in Mrs Doubtfire, credited as Mr Toad), while Laurie's son became a High School chemistry teacher. As his step-brothers had left home, Robin was raised as an only child.

With Robert rising through the ranks at Ford, the family moved wherever his appointments took him. When Robert was transferred to Detroit, they shifted from Chicago to a 40-room farm-house in Bloomfield Hills. These were tough times for Robin, who later described his young self as "short, shy, chubby and lonely". Bullied quite badly, he'd seek out new routes home to avoid his tormentors, and spend much of his time alone in the big house, playing with his 2000-strong army of toy soldiers, his imagination running riot. Eventually, being something of a sporty youth, he gained some measure of respect by joining the wrestling and track teams. And, of course, he learned to make the other kids laugh.

His sense of loneliness was not eased by his parents. Robert was away much of the time and, when he was home, Robin found him "frightening". Laurie worked, too, leaving Robin to be pretty much raised by the maid they employed. He later explained that, though he knew they loved him, they found it hard to communicate their affection. In fact, he says he began in comedy through his attempts to connect with his mother ("I'll make Mommy laugh, and that will be OK"). Still, he was marked by the experience, being left with an acute fear of abandonment and a condition he describes as Love Me Syndrome.

Finally, Robert took early retirement (this would give 16-year-old Robin a chance to "discover" his dad at last), and the family moved to Marin County, California, near San Francisco. Here Robin finished his early education at Redwood High School at Tiburon, across the bay from the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. After graduation in 1969, he attended Claremont Men's College, studying political science and playing soccer, but a new interest now took hold. As said, circumstances had turned Robin into an inveterate joker, and he'd further studied the craft by learning the comedy records of Jonathan Winters (his first idol) off by heart. At Claremont, he began taking lessons in improvisation, a discipline suited to his quick wit. And now he was hooked.

After Claremont, he enrolled at the College of Marin to study acting but, proving to be extremely gifted, he quickly won a full scholarship to the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City. Studying under the legendary John Houseman, his fellow students included William Hurt, Mandy Patinkin and Christopher Reeve. Robin became great friends with Reeve and the pair made a pact that, should one of them succeed, he would help the other. It didn't prove to be necessary. When, in 1978, Williams broke through as Mork, Reeve was starring worldwide as another, infinitely better-known alien . . . Superman. Robin, though, would come to his friend's aid later. When Reeve was paralysed from the neck down in a horse-riding accident, Robin promised to pay all hospital expenses not covered by insurance. (It was also a mark of their great friendship that, immediately after the accident, when Reeve had been informed he would never walk again and was surrounded by solemn faces, Williams turned up dressed as a doctor and pretending to be Reeve's proctologist. It was the first time Reeve smiled after the fall).

There was another important meeting at Juilliard, when Robin fell for dancer Valerie Velardi. The couple would marry in 1978, and produce one son, Zachary.

While at Juillard, Williams waited tables for extra money, then took to performing mime on the streets, often outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On a good day, he'd take $40. He also practised stand-up, eventually leading Houseman to tell him that comedy, rather than acting, was probably where his future lay. Noting Robin's keen intelligence, Houseman would later have something interesting to say about his seemingly chaotic performances: "I always believed there was rather more artifice to Robin's comedy than people know. He thinks very quickly, but his mind is tightly controlled".

Taking Houseman's advice, Robin left Juilliard for Los Angeles and a spell on the burgeoning West Coast comedy circuit. He was befriended by Jay Leno who helped him find gigs, his reputation for hi-octane humour growing ever stronger. 1977 saw him win a spot on The Richard Pryor Show, and also on Laugh-In, a reprisal of Rowan and Martin's late Sixties hit show (which had spawned Goldie Hawn). Though the show was not well-received, Robin stood out, putting on crazy voices, changing accents at will. At one glorious point, he played a redneck shaking hands with Frank Sinatra and shouting "Sell mah clothes, Melba, ah've gone to heaven!"

Now came the big break. Garry Marshall, creator of the massively successful Happy Days, was planning an out-there episode where the Fonz would be abducted by aliens. Consequently, an alien was required. At his audition, when Marshall asked Robin to sit down, he sat on his head and was instantly employed. Well, said Marshall, he was the only real alien who applied.

As Mork from the planet Ork, Robin was a sensation, the audience response being so strong that a new show was created for him - Mork And Mindy. Here he shared a flat with Pam Dawber and caused comic mayhem while learning about love, goodness and human relationships, ending each episode by sticking his finger in his ear and reporting back to Orson. It was a mighty hit. Mork's greeting, Nanu-nanu, became a worldwide catch-phrase, and Robin also enjoyed working alongside his idol Winters, appearing as a fellow alien. Such was Williams' dominance of the programme, so brilliant were his improv skills that soon the scripts would contain big gaps marked "Mork can go off here".

Robin's star was rising at great pace. In 1979, he released a comedy LP titled Reality . . . What A Concept, and appeared onstage in Andy Kaufman's Carnegie Hall special, playing Andy's grandmother. The character would later mutate into Mrs Doubtfire.

And Hollywood came knocking, Mork's success allowing Robin to start at the very top. Taking the title role in Robert Altman's Popeye, he travelled to Sweet Haven, fell for Shelley Duvall's Olive Oyl and battled with pirate and extortionist Bluto, singing and yuk-yukking all the way. All the performances were exceptional, physically superb, and all without the aid of computer generation. Unfortunately, though it was a fantastic portrayal of the comic strip, it wasn't particularly funny, and the critics shredded it.

Robin escaped back to Mork, and stand-up. It would be two years before his next film was released. This was The World According To Garp, written by John Irving and directed by George Roy Hill (of Butch Cassidy fame). Here Robin played Garp, the bastard son of stern nurse Glenn Close. He sees himself as a "serious" writer but finds his career eclipsed by his mother's, when she pens a feminist manifesto that catches on big-time. Naturally, some bizarre characters are drawn to her, including John Lithgow as a tortured cross-dresser, and some murderous wackos, too. By turn, it was hilarious, provocative and life-affirming - just like Robin's stage act. But here Robin was the straight man - though nowhere near as straight as he would be in some of the roles soon to come.

Garp was released in 1982, the same year Robin left Mork And Mindy behind. It was also the year John Belushi died of an overdose at the Chateau Marmont Hotel. This was the sorriest chapter in Robin's life. For a while, like many performers who expend high levels of energy, he'd been caning the alcohol and drugs, in particular cocaine, his Love Me Syndrome being in full effect. He actually got loaded with Belushi the day he died (he'd guested on Belushi's Saturday Night Live the year before), though he wasn't at the hotel when it happened. Valerie tried to get him to stop - he couldn't. His marriage slowly went on the skids.

In the meantime, he continued in a mixed bag of movies. In 1983's The Survivors, he played a chatty clown to Walter Matthau's world-weary cynic. Both lose their jobs (Robin is actually fired by his boss's parrot) then, having prevented a robbery at a diner, are pursued by the vengeful bandit. Then came a semi-comic role, in Paul Mazursky's Moscow On The Hudson, where he played a Russian circus-musician who defects while in Bloomingdale's. Befriended by a security guard and falling for Italian perfumer Maria Conchita Alonso, he looks for work and learns all about the USA. Robin's Eastern European accent would come in handy again later, in Nine Months and Jakob The Liar. He'd also use it to spectacularly trick John Travolta. In 2002, he posed as Travolta's chauffeur, pretended to be foreign, and deaf, and took numerous wrong turns, finally causing Travolta to call for help when he offered him a slug of vodka from an open bottle.

Next came The Best Of Times, where he was snivelling nerd Jack Dundee who, along with washed-up quarterback Kurt Russell, gets to replay the high school football game that cost him his reputation and dignity. Then there was the Harold Ramis comedy Club Paradise where, retiring from the fire brigade, Robin moves to the Caribbean and tries, along with Jimmy Cliff, to make a go of a holiday night-spot. Governor Peter O'Toole, though, wants to sell the whole island to a ruthless entrepreneur. Again, Williams played the straight-man.

Williams' next movie saw him in a purely dramatic role. In Seize The Day, based on a Saul Bellow story, he was Tommy Wilhelm, a sad-sack who loses his job, his family and his initiative. It was pretty depressing stuff, but Robin showed once more that he could operate outside the comedy genre. That same year, 1986, saw him co-host the first American Comic Relief, raising money for the homeless. It was one of many charities that Robin would back consistently. And he won a Grammy for his Live At The Met comedy LP. '86 also saw him sued for $6.2 million by an ex-girlfriend who claimed he'd given her herpes. He counter-sued for extortion, the case being settled out-of-court, terms undisclosed.

Having consolidated his position as a leading man in smaller movies, Robin now moved into the Big League. In Barry Levinson's Good Morning Vietnam, he played real-life military DJ Adrian Cronauer whose crazy banter and barbed truth-telling cheered the troops and annoyed the authorities during the campaign. Then, falling for a local girl, he experiences first-hand some of the horrors of war. The highlights of the movie were, naturally, Robin's broadcasts to the troops, all of them ad-libbed (unless you believe John Houseman, of course). The real Cronauer said the movie was about 40% accurate, as it made him seem anti-war when he was in fact just "anti-stupidity". He added that, had he done half the things Williams did, he'd have been court-martialled for sure.

The film was a big hit, Robin's first $100 million success. And Robin, having won a Golden Globe as Mork, and been nominated for Moscow On The Hudson, was now honoured with an Oscar nomination. But his personal life was in uproar. In 1984, he and Valerie had hired Marsha Garces, a young painter working as a waitress, to be nanny to Zachary. By 1987, the marriage was over, with Valerie already in another relationship. Garces became Robin's assistant, travelling with him, and the pair fell in love, eventually marrying in 1989. They'd have two kids, Zelda and Cody. Marsha would also partner Robin in the Blue Wolf production company, vetting scripts and keeping him free from pushy users. This power would, of course, make her a real Hollywood mover.

Now, after a wacko cameo as the King of the Moon in Terry Gilliam's fabulously ambitious Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, and a stint on Broadway with Steve Martin in Waiting For Godot, came another of Robin's most famous roles, as professor John Keating in Dead Poets Society. Originally, Liam Neeson had the part, but lost it when director Peter Weir came onboard, leaving Robin to excel as the teacher who inspires private school kids to love poetry and, for the second time, seize the day. (The expression would also be used at the end of Hook, and alluded to in Mrs Doubtfire when, losing his false teeth in a restaurant, Robin says "Carpe Dentum"). Another hit, another Oscar nomination.

Next came Cadillac Man, where Robin was Joey O'Brien, who must sell twelve cars in two days or lose his job. On top of this, he's got trouble with his two girlfriends and his ex-wife, his daughter's missing, AND there's a jealous husband with a machine-gun.

It was time for a more sober role, and this came with Awakenings. Directed by Penny Marshall (sister of Garry Marshall and star of Laverne And Shirley, another Happy Days spin-off), this was the true story of doctor Oliver Sacks, who defied the authorities and used new drugs to wake a wardful of coma-bound encephalitis victims. It was a great performance, not overly sentimental and not overshadowed by Robert De Niro at his most moving. The real Sacks notably described Williams as having some sort of voluntary Tourette's Syndrome.

1991 brought three more prize roles. In Kenneth Branagh's Dead Again, he played it straight once more as a disgraced psychiatrist who - angry, bitter and working in a supermarket - gives Branagh some deadly advice on how to off his girlfriend. He impressed Branagh mightily and, five years later, would be cast as Osric in his Hamlet.

After Dead Again came Gilliam once more with The Fisher King, perhaps Williams' best movie. Here Jeff Bridges played a talk DJ who goes off the rails when he inadvertently causes a massacre. Williams plays Parry, a down-and-out, maddened by his wife's murder and obsessed with mediaeval mythology, who saves Bridges' life and draws him into a quest for the Holy Grail, while Bridges in turn tries to hook Robin up with Amanda Plummer and save him from madness. Strange, exciting and truly moving, it saw Robin once again Oscar-nominated.

Now came Spielberg and Hook, with Robin as a grown-up Peter Pan who, when Dustin Hoffman's devilish Captain Hook kidnaps his children, must return to Neverland and re-discover the power of his youth. Though action-packed and adventurous, and despite breaking the $100 million barrier, the film was deemed to be overly sentimental and Spielberg's first flop. And it might never have happened, to Robin, at least. Kevin Kline was originally down to play Peter, but dropped out when Soapdish over-ran.

But nothing could stop Williams. He moved straight on to Disney's Aladdin, ad-libbing like crazy once more as the voice of the Genie, his performance carrying the movie past the $200 million mark. Yet there was trouble with Disney. Having demanded that they not market the film as a Robin Williams vehicle, Robin complained vociferously when they did just that. They, in turn, claimed he was just trying to stick them for more money. In fact, he said, all he wanted was an apology, which he duly received.

Perhaps unwisely, Robin stayed with the kids' market with Barry Levinson's Toys. Here he played Leslie Zevo, whose dying toy-maker father bequeaths his factory to his brother, military man Michael Gambon, who uses it to manufacture weapons. Could Robin foil his wicked plans and return the factory to its former glories? No one seemed to care.

But yet again Williams escaped from failure unscathed, his huge popularity undiminished. Better still, he stepped straight into his biggest hit to date. His wife, Marsha, had been seeking projects for him and discovered Mrs Doubtfire. Hollywood scoffed when he had her produce the movie, but she brought in Home Alone's Chris Columbus to direct and got to work. Robin, playing a divorcee who disguises himself as an elderly house-maid in order to see his kids, delivered a storming performance (oddly, having divorced his wife and married the nanny, he here divorced his wife and BECAME the nanny). The film went through the roof, delivering Robin's second $200 million hit in two years (both won him Golden Globes). The scoffing ended pretty sharpish.

In Mrs Doubtfire, Robin employed a Scottish accent. This he picked up from Bill Forsyth, director of a movie he'd just filmed called Being Human. This followed Robin through five separate lifetimes, each centuries apart, as he sought the meaning of, well, being human. It was charming, and insightful, if a little too ambitious. Robin immediately went back to Columbus and Nine Months, where he played Julianne Moore's bungling Russian obstetrician, continually mixing up his words ("Let's have a look at your volvo"). This was the first of several remakes of French movies Robin would headline in the mid-Nineties.

Having turned down an approach from Oliver Stone to play the lead in Nixon (the year before, 1994, he'd received an Emmy nomination for a brief role in Homicide: Life On The Streets. See how seriously he was taken by his peers?), Robin re-entered the kids' market with the superior fantasy Jumanji. Here young Kirsten Dunst and Bradley Pierce play a magical board-game and accidentally release Robin, trapped in the game as a child, 26 years before. Unfortunately, they also release stampeding herds of animals, swarms of vicious insects and a hunter intent on blowing Robin's brains out. To save Robin and the town, they must play the game to its possibly bitter end.

Jumanji was a tremendous kids' film, both scary and uplifting, Robin deservedly breaking the $100 million mark again. Despite losing the part of The Riddler to Jim Carrey (who'd also nab The Truman Show from him), now he was one of the biggest stars alive. So, naturally, he went off the deep end. To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar saw three drag queens crossing the US on their way to California, meeting serious disapproval and finding much love. Robin was offered the lead but, having just done Mrs Doubtfire, left it to Patrick Swayze, instead playing a cameo as John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.

He handed over a big, camp role the next year, too, to Nathan Lane. In The Birdcage (a remake of La Cage Aux Folles), he played a gay clubowner whose son wants to bring his girlfriend (Calista Flockheart) and her severely conservative parents (Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest) to stay. So Robin, and his flamboyant, female-impersonating boyfriend (Lane), must pretend to be straight. On set, because ladies' clothes did not particularly suit his hairy frame, Robin was known as Dragzilla. It made no odds at the box-office - The Birdcage was yet another $100 million hit.

There was always a sense of child-like wonder to Williams' comedy. Emotionally open, unashamedly silly and rampantly imaginative, he used a child's outlook to its best adult advantage (as he had done in connecting with his mother years before). He had a concomitant sympathy for kids, too, donating heavily to children's charities and regularly visiting children's wards. And this appreciation of (and maybe a desire for?) youthfulness clearly influenced the roles he was offered and chose. After all, he played a man-child in Hook, Toys and Jumanji, with his characters in Mork And Mindy and The Fisher King not being far off. But now, in 1996, he went the whole hog with Jack.

This saw him as Jack Powell, a kid with an ageing disorder that gave him a 40-year-old body at the age of 10. Robin initially turned it down, believing he'd covered this territory extensively already ("The only thing I'm really suited for is the musical version of Congo", he said, referring to his own outrageous hairiness), but was tempted onboard when Francis Ford Coppola decided to direct. Williams spent two weeks camping, cycling and playing basketball with the kids who'd be playing Powell's classmates, and made a fine job of the part, but audiences stayed away. It was, after all, a miserable premise for a movie.

Robin moved on into different territories, deliberately widening his scope. There were small parts in Hamlet and Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry, as well as Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, as The Professor, a bomb-maker in Victorian London's underworld.

Then it was back to comedy. Since 1986, he'd been co-hosting Comic Relief shows with Billy Crystal, engaging in some healthy comic competition; the pair of them, according to Williams, behaving "like two elk spraying musk". They'd been looking for a chance to act together and it came with Father's Day (another movie to originate in France, as Les Comperes). Here Robin played a depressed writer, and Crystal a smart lawyer, both of them being told by mutual ex-girlfriend Nastassja Kinski that he's the father of her 17-year-old son (he's run off and she's needs someone to go looking for him). It was fast and fun, but no world-beater, despite Williams and Crystal making guest appearances on Friends to promote it.

The following Flubber did better. Back with Disney after their Aladdin contretemps, Robin played Professor Phil Brainard, a brilliant man but so sketchy he keeps forgetting his own wedding - this was, after all, a remake of The Absent-Minded Professor. Brainard has trouble coping with the real world, and then the real world has trouble coping with his new invention, the uncontrollably bouncy substance of the title.

Flubber was another hit, but not as big as Williams' next effort. Here he lent some weight and experience to a small film by a couple of newcomers. The film was Good Will Hunting, the newcomers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. As Sean Maguire, psychiatrist to Damon's troubled street-kid genius, he was excellent, and added his own lines to the script. In the scene where he tells Damon about his dead wife and her farting, Damon is laughing so hard because he's never heard the speech before. Look closely and you'll see the cameraman was shaking with mirth, too. At last, Robin won an Oscar for his efforts.

Balancing smaller, more interesting projects with big comedy numbers, Robin now moved on to What Dreams May Come. This teamed him up with director Vincent Ward, maker of two of the most beautiful and moving movies of recent times, The Navigator and Map Of The Human Heart. Together, they might create something extraordinary - and they did. What Dreams May Come saw Robin dying in a car crash and going to heaven, a spectacular but unformed heaven that resembles his wife's paintings (he even sloshes through wet paint as the place solidifies for him). Cuba Gooding plays an angel-type who tries to help him acclimatise, but things change when Robin discovers that his wife, Annabella Sciorra, driven to madness by his death and those of her children, has killed herself and gone to Hell. With the aid of The Tracker, Max Von Sydow, he and Gooding must go save her.

It was a fabulous film, fascinating, touching and visually mind-blowing, on a par with Kurosawa's Dreams. But, again, the subject matter was too strange, too turbulent to reach a massive audience. Robin would do that with his next effort. This was Patch Adams, the true-ish story of a doctor who (yes) defied the authorities and treated patients more successfully by prescribing laughter along with traditional remedies. For many, it was the role Williams had waited his whole career to play - a guy who actually saves lives with his jokes. The critics thought it a step too far, and tore it to pieces. So popular was Williams, though, that the public ignored them and made it yet another $100 million hit. It really seemed as if Robin could do no wrong.

And then, of course, it ALL went wrong. Robin's next smaller movie was Jakob The Liar, where he played a lonely widower in a Polish ghetto in 1944. Mistakenly believed to have radio-contact with the outside world, he starts telling porkies about Allied successes in order to keep up the spirits of the inmates, at the same time protecting a Jewish girl from the Nazis. The movie might have been a success but, though made at the same time, it was fatally released AFTER the Oscar-winning Life Is Beautiful. People had had enough Holocaust humour for now.

Ordinarily, Robin - Harry Houdini when it came to escaping flops unharmed - would have simply stepped into another mainstream hit and made it all alright. And he did try, going back to Chris Columbus for Bicentennial Man. This, based on an Isaac Asimov story, saw him as a cyborg which, built as a family butler, begins to experience emotion and creative thought. The film follows his development towards humanity over 200 years, with his parent company trying to destroy him all the way. It was a great story, plus there was Robin, and an excellent cast including Sam Neill and Embeth Davidtz, but Columbus went all sentimental when he could have gone deep. Again, the critics attacked and this time, with Robin heavily made-up and out-of-character, the public stayed away. It was a financial disaster, and it cost Robin much of his clout in Hollywood.

No matter, it was time for a radical change. After providing the voice of Doctor Know, the oracle in Speilberg's AI: Artificial Intelligence, Robin turned bad. Real bad. In One Hour Photo, he won rave reviews as a photo lab worker who becomes devoted to a young local family, and then gets weirder and weirder. Turning his usual sweet-guy into something infinitely more malevolent, Williams managed to draw people in, then scare the pants off them.

Death To Smoochy suffered all manner of release difficulties and fell away fast. Nevertheless, it was a wickedly funny film. Directed by Danny De Vito, it saw Robin as "Rainbow" Smiley, a kids' show host who's sacked for taking bribes and replaced by Smoochy - Ed Norton as a cuddly purple rhino. Drunk and drugged-up, Rainbow aches for revenge, desperately trying to trick Smoochy into appearing at a Neo-Nazi rally. Bleak, black, nasty and very funny, it was typical De Vito, and Robin made a superb psycho.

As he did in his next picture, Insomnia, another big hit (and another based on a European original). Here Al Pacino starred as Will Dormer, a cop who, while chasing a killer, becomes more and more compromised. Robin, meanwhile, is the killer, a writer of crime fiction who thinks he can lead the investigators around by the nose. Directed by Christopher "Memento" Nolan, the movie was clever, complex and wholly intriguing. And Robin Williams, despite having won an Oscar five years before, was finally accepted as an actor of real class.

That same year, 2002, also saw Robin return to his roots, selling-out on Broadway with another impressive stand-up show. That he would not be seen onscreen again for another two years disguised the fact that he was now perhaps Hollywood's busiest man, his new releases soon coming in droves. 2004 would see him in The Final Cut, a strange and morose Philip K. Dick-style sci-fi piece set in a future where some people have chips embedded in their heads to record all the sights they see. Williams would play a prominent cutter, a man who scans through the lives of the recently deceased and makes feel-good biopics to cheer the bereaved. Challenged by anti-chip activist James Caviezel and disturbed by having to cut the life of a probable child abuser, Williams was brilliant once again - distant and so terribly weary.

Next would come House Of D, the directorial debut of David Duchovny, where Duchovny himself would play an artist in Paris, returning home to New York and looking back over his life. Williams would play Pappass, an idiot savant who befriended the artist as a young man in this sincere but corny tale of misunderstandings suffered and wisdom gained (Robin's daughter Zelda would also appear). After a stand-up performance at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, the year would end with Noel, another directorial debut, this time that of Chazz Palminteri. Here five lonely, pained New Yorkers (including Susan Sarandon, Penelope Cruz and Alan Arkin) would seek a miracle at Christmas time, Williams popping up uncredited as a fellow who talks Sarandon out of throwing herself into the river when the strain of life and her mother's Alzheimer's become too much.

2005 would bring two futher releases in Robots and The Big White. The first would be a full-length animation where Ewan McGregor's inventor hero hopes to work for the world's greatest engineering corporation but ends up battling its sinister new management. Willaims would lend his voice to the irrepressible tourist guide who helps McGregor save the city, his mostly improvised turn, much as in Aladdin, turning the movie from a dull dud into a big hit. Heavily influenced by the Coen brothers' Fargo, The Big White would be very different, with Williams playing an Alaskan travel agent trapped both in debt and in a difficult marriage to a crazy Holly Hunter. When his $1 million insurance claim for the death of his disappeared brother is rejected on the grounds that there's no body, he leaps at the chance to pull a scam when he stumbles upon a corpse. Insurance investigator Giovanni Ribisi, however, does not trust him.

2005 would be an odd year for Williams. He'd enjoy contributing a filthy story to the documentary The Aristocrats, and would receive a special Cecil B DeMille award at the Golden Globes for his contribution to the arts. But he'd also face (brief) legal problems, being forced to stop the activities of one Michael Clayton, a con man who pretended to be Williams and duped charities out of considerable sums.

2006 would be perhaps his biggest year yet, seeing no fewer than six new releases. First would come The Night Listener, based on the novel by Armistead Maupin, which Williams took for a mere $65,000. Here he'd play a gay radio show host who, on air, befriends a 14-year-old abuse victim. The kid's stepmum, Toni Collette, comes on to describe the boy's slow deterioration from AIDS, but soon their real identities are called into question, drawing Williams into a disturbing mystery. Next would come the infinitely more cheerful Happy Feet, another animation, about an Emperor Penguin with a gift for tap-dancing. And Williams would keep to the happy trail with Barry Sonnenfeld's RV where he'd play the overworked father of a dysfunctional family who plans a relaxing trip to the Rockies in the hired recreational vehicle of the title. Naturally, often death-defying zaniness ensues, with Jeff Daniels' supremely annoying RV guru only adding to the chaos.

Following RV would be August Rush, where musical prodigy Freddie Highmore seeks his birth parents with the aid of Williams' kindly wizard. Then there'd be Man Of The Year, another reunion with director Barry Levinson, where Williams would be a late-night political talk show host who, as a joke, runs for president and, due to unusual circumstances, actually makes it to the White House. And, finally, the year would close with Night At The Museum, where Ben Stiller would play a security guard at a Natural History museum who discovers that, due to some weird Pharoah curse-thing, all the exhibits spring to life when darkness falls. Williams would add considerable comedic weight as former president Theodore Roosevelt, founder of the museum.

Surely, Robin Williams has nothing left to prove. Surely he can now settle back in his San Francisco home, enjoy his cycling (he occasionally trains with Lance Armstrong), and watching Rugby Union (he's twice been presented with All Blacks shirts by Jonah Lomu). But you know he won't. Having got the world to love him as a good guy and as a bad guy, he'll probably now want us to love him as everything inbetween. His regular trips to entertain US troops in an ever-increasing number of war zones will certainly help with this. That's syndromes for you. It'll be a long process, but fun. With Robin Williams, it's always fun.

Dominic Wills

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