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Robin Williams: The Legend Behind The Laughs

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Robin Williams was truly one of the greats. His larger than life personality and his embodiment of “hyper-comedy” made him adored, admired and idolized by the masses. His hilarious comedy skits had people crying with laughter as did his iconic movies including Mrs. Doubtfire and Aladdin.

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After getting his start in comedy in the 70s, Robin transitioned into more dramatic roles in the 80s and 90s in award-winning films including Good Morning, Vietnam,  Awakenings and Good Will Hunting. Despite the star passing away in 2014, his improvisational performance style continues to be hailed as his wonderful personality lives on and his legacy remembered. 

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Breakthrough

Good Morning, Vietnam ended up being one of the most significant films in Robin William’s career as it put him on the map as an actor. However, this important movie almost never happened and it took a very long time to get greenlit.

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The film was first developed in 1979 and passed around to different studios and potential actors before William’s found himself at the forefront of it. He knew he had a goldmine on his hands and it was the movie that would get him taken seriously as an actor. It paid off and it became his first Oscar nomination. 

He was a shy child

Considering Robin Williams was known for his larger than life personality, it might be hard to believe that he was actually a very shy child. He described himself as being quiet and said his first imitation came at the expense of his grandmother, to his mother.

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It wasn’t until high school when Robin became involved with his drama department that his personality began to shine through and he overcame his shyness. It was here that his talent became overtly clear to everyone.

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He loved the troops

Despite his opposition to the Iraq war, Robin loved travelling to entertain the troops. He ended up being one of the most consistent entertainers travelling to the region since the war began.

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He became a favorite among the troops and he ended up doing six USO tours to Iraq, Afghanistan, and 11 other countries and performed for 90,000 troops up until his last one in 2010. From this, Williams left a mark in the hearts he came to entertain.  

Disheartening advice

When Robin joined the prestigious Juilliard School, his teachers told him to focus more on his stand-up comedy than working on his acting classes. They even went on to tell him he was wasting his time in these classes!

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Robin went on to prove all of his professors wrong, showing he couldn’t just excel in stand-up comedy, but he could also be an Oscar-winning actor, making him one of the most successful exports out of New York’s Juilliard. 

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A struggling actor

Making it in acting is never an easy feat and even when you make it, it takes a while for the big money to come rolling in. When Robin was just starting out as an aspiring actor, he had no money and really struggled in getting by.

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Instead of getting a job behind a bar or as a waiter, Robin decided to use his talents and perform as a mime outside of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Can’t win them all

Robin Williams might have some of the most successful movies that have been critically-acclaimed around the world, but not all of his films have been huge successes. In his start to fame, his major film debut came in Robert Altman’s Popeye.

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The live-action version of the comic strip was absolutely panned and critic Leonard Maltin described it as a complete bomb. Luckily, Robin’s career picked up and the Popeye disaster became a thing of the past. 

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He married his child’s nanny

While this is something that happens in romcoms, Robin actually ended up with his child’s nanny. After divorcing his first wife Valerie Velardi, Williams fell for, Marsha Garces. As expected, there was plenty of speculation for a while that Williams had cheated on Velardi with Garces while she was still playing nanny to his kids.

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However, it was revealed in later years that the two only embarked on a romance once his marriage had officially ended. 

His best friend

When Robin attended Juilliard, he became best friends with Superman actor Christopher Reeve. While the two went on to land huge roles in blockbuster films, their time at college was quite different. Williams was struggling with money and explained that Reeve was “literally feeding me because I don’t think I literally had money for food or my student loan hadn’t come in yet, and he would share his food with me.”

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Even after Reeve’s accident in 1995 which made him  quadriplegic, Robin supported him throughout and they remained best friends for 25-years.

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Laughter is the best medicine

Christoher Reeve’s tragic accident left him paralysed with a lengthy stay in hospital which left the actor in a very dark place. Williams decided to lift his spirits by showing up at the hospital pretending to be an eccentric Russian proctologist who was going to perform an intimate exam on him.

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Reeve claimed this was the first time he laughed after the accident explaining “for the first time since the accident, I laughed. My old friend had helped me know that somehow I was going to be okay.”

Becoming the genie

When Disney were trying to get Williams to sign on as the genie, they decided to animate and lip-sync the genie performing Williams’ own stand-up comedy. Williams absolutely loved it and signed on immediately.

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Despite Aladdin being a huge success and everyone falling in love with the genie, it was rejected at the Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay as Williams improvised most of the lines in the movie so it divulged too much from the original script. In the end, over 16 additional hours of dialogue were recorded by Williams. 

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An unplanned cameo

Robin Williams has never been one to shy away from an opportunity to delight audiences and make them laugh. So when he was with his good friend Billy Crystal in the same building that friends was filmed in, the two decided to storm the set and join in an episode.

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The two ended up appearing at the beginning of an episode and in true Williams style, improvised their entire scene, much to the delight of the cast and audience. 

Oh dear, Mrs. Doubtfire

In the iconic Mrs. Doubtfire, one of the best scenes is when Mrs. Sellner comes to inspect Daniel’s apartment and he/Mrs. Doubtfire is making her tea in a robe with cake frosting all over her face.

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It turns out that the frosting wasn’t supposed to fall off her face and the lighting in the studio was causing it to melt and dropping in the tea. Robin Williams improvised that whole scene, just going with the wardrobe malfunction and having everyone in fits of laughter. 

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Where are you actually from?

One of the best things about Robin Williams was the fact that you never really knew what he was going to come out with or what to expect. In a hilarious situation with a reporter early on in his career, he was asked where he was from and he replied that he was born in Scotland but he was actually from Chicago.

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Robin later had to rescind his comment in a statement and said that he was “under the influence” at the time of the interview!

The Legend of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda is one of the most successful gaming franchises in history with fans all around the world. It turns out that one of the biggest fans of the games was none other than Robin Williams.

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He genuinely loved the game so much that he decided to name his daughter Zelda, in tribute to his favorite game. Zelda grew up playing the video game with her father and it became a bonding time for them. 

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Upside down audition

When Robin was auditioning for the role of Mork in alien sitcom Mork & Mindy, he decided to do something completely out of the ordinary when it came to auditioning for the role. Garry Marshall was due to meet with Williams and when he came in, Marshall invited him to sit down, and Robin just decided to sit on his head instead.

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Marshall hired him for the role immediately and when asked why he did it, he replied “He was the only alien who auditioned.”

Robin’s dark struggles

Through the late 70s and early 80s, Williams had a dark and heavy addiction to alcohol and other dangerous substances. Despite being a funny man on the exterior who loved to make everyone else smile and find joy, Williams was not doing well himself.

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His wake up call for his substance issues didn’t come until his friend, John Belushi died when the two had been partying hard together the night before. Then, when his son was born, Robin knew he couldn’t go back to his old ways. 

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A little laugh goes a long way

After filming Hook together, Steven Spielberg and Robin Williams became great friends. When Spielberg was filming Schnindler’s List, the award-winning director was having a hard time getting through the 1993 drama and it was taking a great emotional toll.

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Spielberg explained that Robin knew what he was going through so would call once a week and “do 15 minutes of stand-up on the phone. I would laugh hysterically . . . he’d always hang up on you on the loudest, best laugh you’d give him.”

Making big bucks

Despite Aladdin being one of Robin’s most successful films, he only earned a paycheck for $75,000 from Disney. On the other end of the spectrum, Robin got a massive $20 million payday for his 1999 film Bicentennial Man.

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With this role, the inclusion of Robin Williams still couldn’t get viewers attention and it became one of William’s most forgettable roles, albeit his highest paid. Turns out you don’t get more out of something if you put more money into it. 

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He got his start in a church comedy workshop

After leaving the prestigious Juilliard in New York, Robin found himself back home in San Francisco looking for work as an actor. After finding himself a bit lost, he stumbled upon a comedy workshop inside of a church and decided to give it a go.

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He explained it was “basement of a Lutheran church, and it was stand-up comedy, so you don’t get to improvise with others, but I started off doing, ostensibly, it was just like improvising but solo.”

He had a close bond with Koko the gorilla

While Robin had many famous friends within the industry, one of the closest bonds he made was with a gorilla named Koko. She lived at The Gorilla Foundation in Northern California and the workers showed the gorilla one of Robin’s movies, and from this, she recognized him when he visited.

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The gorilla immediately loved him and wanted him to tickle her all day. Robin said of the experience “We shared something extraordinary: laughter.” The gorilla was said to have fell into depression the day he died.

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He wrote a letter for Mrs. Doubtfire’s Lydia when she got kicked out of school

Lydia Hillard was played by Lisa Jakub in Mrs. Doubtfire and when she went to film the movie for five months, her school was furious which led her to be kicked out.

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Jakub explained that her on-screen father, Robin Williams stepped in and wrote a letter insisting she was an asset to the school and they should take her back. Despite framing the letter from the actor, the school didn’t let her return.

He forgot to thank his mother in his Oscar acceptance speech

Williams won his first Oscar in 1988 for his performance in Good Will Hunting but when he went to accept his award, he thanked everyone but the most important person, his mom.

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He explained “I forgot to thank my mother and she was in the audience, even the therapist went, ‘Get out!’ That was rough for the next few years.” His mom truly never let him live it down and in true Robin fashion, he had to imitate her scolding him.

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He was voted “Most Likely Not To Succeed” by his classmates

When Robin was at school in California, his classmates seemed to miss the mark with the hugely successful actor and comedian. Although they voted him as their “funniest” classmate, they also voted him as the “most likely not to succeed”.

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Clearly they thought that being the funny one would hinder him in later years, but it turned out to be the exact opposite. At least they always appreciated his humor that the rest of the world fell in love with!

Disney’s apology after selling Aladdin merch

Robin had always refused to sell stuff and only wanted his name attached to talent in his comedy and movies, so when Disney started using his voice to sell Aladdin merchandise he was furious.

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He admitted he voiced the Genie for his kids and didn’t want to be part of a merch machine. As a peace offering, Disney sent Robin a Picasso painting worth $1 million, a huge amount compared to his $75,000 paycheck for the movie. 

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He was a massive dog lover

Robin kept the majority of his personal life private, but there was one thing he was passionate about that he publicized on his social media pages. Many of his photos featured dogs and his assistant’s dog named Miss Verna Pearl which he referred to as his “road dog”.

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In addition to posting pictures of dogs that he loved, he used his social media to promote pet adoption and raise awareness and highlight the benefits of bringing a beloved pooch into homes. 

He loved cycling and became close to Lance Armstrong

Other than acting and comedy, one of Robin’s biggest hobbies was cycling. It was said that he got into the sport when tackling his substance addiction. Through his love of the sport he developed a close relationship with former professional road racing cyclist Lance Armstrong.

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Robin went on to compete in a number of charity cycling events around the world. However, when Lance Armstrong admitted to doping in his career, Robin struggled with the admission after supporting the cyclist. 

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He really wanted to play Hagrid in Harry Potter

It was reported that Williams was very interested in landing the role Rubeus Hagrid in the Harry Potter franchise. He even called the director Chris Columbus to try his luck and get the role but there was a problem as there were rules about the whole cast being British.

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Casting director Janet Hirshenson revealed that Columbus had to say no, adding “and once he said ‘no’ to Robin, he wasn’t going to say ‘yes’ to anybody else, that’s for sure. It couldn’t be.”

He uses his alter egos in voicemails

If you were ever lucky enough to receive a voicemail from Robin Williams you probably would have never known it was him. Apparently, Robin loved to leave voicemails in different voices to throw his friends off.

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The director of his documentary, Marina Zenovich disclosed one of them which said “”Hello, Bill, it’s Lord Sisley. I’m in Africa. And dear God, man, you should be here. There’s creatures who would adore you. I send you all my love. But not like that day in boys school. Something different. Something wonderful. A hug. But if you wish, Bubbly, call.”

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No improv for the kids

Having Robin Williams read you your bedtime story in all his brilliant and imaginative voices is something most can only dream of, but for Robin’s kids, they weren’t so into it. Robin’s favorite book to read to his kids was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe byu C.S. Lewis.

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With all the wonderful characters in the book, Robin truly brought it to life but explained that he was once reading to Zelda, who turned to him and said “don’t do any voices. Just read it as yourself.”

Robin’s greatest inspiration

Even the greatest of stars have their own inspiration and for Robin it was Jonathan Winters. Williams noted that his admiration for Winters began at the young age of eight years old.

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He noted that the comedian made him believe “that anything is possible, that anything is funny. . . He gave me the idea that it can be free-form, that you can go in and out of things pretty easily.” In later years Robin was able to pay homage to his idol.

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Jokes on the Joker

Robin Williams was offered to play the role of the Joker in Batman and being a comic book lover, of course he jumped at the chance. However, the role was initially offered to Jack Nicholson but he passed on it but then backtracked when he found out the great Robin had taken it.

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Warner Bros. proceeded with Nicholson who they really wanted and Robin was furious that they used him as a bargaining chip to persuade Jack to take the role. He refused to work for Warner. Bros for years following this.

Williams’ own wine

Aside from comedy being Robin’s greatest passion, he also had a love of wine and went on to buy a vineyard in Napa Valley with an estate called Villa Sorriso, nestled in the folds of Mount Veeder along the Napa Valley’s southwestern perimeter.

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Williams said of his $35 million home “I love the smell of Napa in the morning.” Of course, Robin had to make light out of his big purchase, joking that him owning a vineyard is like “Gandhi owning a delicatessen.”

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A father figure to many

Throughout his successful career, Robin starred alongside an impressive amount of prominent actors. While everyone he worked with hailed Robin as being an incredible person on set and on top of that, some even considered him to be family.

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As well as having a wonderful relationship with the girls from Mrs. Doubtfire, Sarah Michelle Gellar played his daughter in the 2013 movie The Crazy Ones and the actress kindly described Robin as her “surrogate father”.

A true philanthropist

Robin didn’t just have a love and appreciation for the troops and he dedicated himself to many different philanthropic projects. In 1986, he teamed up with Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal to found Comic Relief USA and together with his second wife Marsha Garces, he founded the Windfall Foundation which raised money for many different charities.

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Robin’s dedication to helping other people came from his upbringing and he knew he was always fortunate so had a passion for helping the less fortunate.

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Helping the next generation

Attending Juilliard was such a huge part of Robin’s life and career and he owed much of his success to his education at the prestigious school. Robin knew how invaluable his experience was and wanted to give other rising stars the same opportunity so he set up a scholarship fund to help others attend the institution.

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One person who benefitted from this is award-winning actress Jessica Chastain who admitted ““Robin Williams changed my life, his generous spirit will forever inspire me to support others as he supported me.”

Emergency surgery

In 2009, Robin was forced to cancel his upcoming “Weapons of Self-Destruction” tour in order to undergo emergency heart surgery. Heart problems ran in his family and his brother died from heart failure in 2007, so he knew it was a serious situation.

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Robin underwent aortic valve replacement surgery and made a full recovery from it. Making light of the potentially fatal situation, Robin joked “I realize now that shortness of breath is kind of code for heart problem.”

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Humor in heaven

Robin always saw the light hearted nature of everything and going to heaven was no exception. When asked in 2001 what he would like to hear God say at the gates of heaven, Robin replied “There’s seating near the front, the concert begins at five, it’ll be Mozart, Elvis and one of your choosing.”

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He went on to say that “If heaven exists, to know that there’s laughter, that’d be a good thing.” There is no doubt Robin will always be laughing and cracking jokes in heaven.

Good Will laughing

The last line of a movie is one of the most important as it is something that resonates with the audience after it’s finished. In Good Will Hunting, the award-winning movie’s last line “you like apples?” was actually improvised by Robin and was not supposed to be the last line at all.

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In addition, the scene where he talks about his wife becoming gassy in bed was also improvised and Matt Damon’s uncontrollable laughter was completely genuine.

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Genie, you’re free

In the years before Robin committed suicide in 2014, he was going through some dark and serious struggles. Between his career facing challenges, his second divorce and getting used to married life with his third wife, Robin was dealt a final blow of being diagnosed with Lewy body dementia, an aggressive and incurable brain disorder.

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Robin spiralled into a dark place and couldn’t see life like he used to and ending it all was his only way out. The heartbreaking news was felt around the world with so many heartwarming and beautiful tributes for the beloved actor.

Read more: Which version of Aladdin was more successful?

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