Robin McLaurin Williams (July 21, 1951 – August 11, 2014) was an American actor and comedian. Born in Chicago, Williams started as a stand-up comedian in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the mid-1970s. He is credited with leading San Francisco's comedy renaissance. After rising to fame as an alien called Mork in the TV sci-fi sitcom series Mork & Mindy, Williams established a career in both stand-up comedy and feature film acting. He was known for his improvisational skills.
After his first starring film role in Popeye (1980), Williams starred or co-starred in various films that achieved both critical acclaim and financial success, including Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Dead Poets Society (1989), Aladdin (1992), The Birdcage (1996), and Good Will Hunting (1997). He also starred in widely acclaimed films such as The World According to Garp (1982), Moscow on the Hudson (1984), Awakenings (1990), The Fisher King (1991), One Hour Photo (2002), and World's Greatest Dad (2009), as well as box office hits such as Hook (1991), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), Jumanji (1995) and Night at the Museum (2006).
Williams won the 1997 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as psychologist Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting. He also received two Emmy Awards, seven Golden Globe Awards, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, and four Grammy Awards throughout his career. On August 11, 2014, Williams committed suicide at his home in Paradise Cay, California, at the age of 63. His wife attributed his suicide to Williams' struggle with Lewy body disease.
Robin McLaurin Williams|
July 21, 1951
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
August 11, 2014 (aged 63)|
Paradise Cay, California, U.S.
|Cause of death||Asphyxiation due to suicide by hanging|
|Resting place||Cremated; ashes scattered in San Francisco Bay|
|Alma mater||Juilliard School|
3, including Zelda Williams
|Medium||Stand-up comedy, film, television|
|Genres||Observational comedy, improvisational comedy, character comedy, self-deprecation, surreal humor|
|Website||"robinwilliams.com". Archived from the original on August 12, 2014.|
Williams was born at St. Luke's Hospital in Chicago, Illinois on July 21, 1951. His father, Robert Fitzgerald Williams, was a senior executive in Ford Motor Company's Lincoln-Mercury Division. His mother, Laurie McLaurin, was a former model from Jackson, Mississippi. Her great-grandfather was Mississippi senator and governor Anselm J. McLaurin. Williams had two elder half-brothers named Robert (also known as Todd) and McLaurin. He had English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, German, and French ancestry.
While his mother was a practitioner of Christian Science, Williams was raised in the Episcopal Church, to which his father belonged. Williams wrote a list: "Top Ten Reasons to be an Episcopalian." During a television interview on Inside the Actors Studio in 2001, Williams credited his mother as being an important early influence for his sense of humor. He also said that he tried to make her laugh to gain attention.
Williams attended public elementary school in Lake Forest at Gorton Elementary School (now Gorton Community Center) and middle school at Deer Path Junior High School (now Deer Path Middle School). He described himself as a quiet and shy child who did not overcome his shyness until he became involved with his high school drama department. His friends recall him as being very funny.
In late 1963, when Williams was 12, his father was transferred to Detroit. The family lived in a 40-room farmhouse on 20 acres in suburban Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where he was a student at the private Detroit Country Day School. He excelled in school, where he was on the school's soccer team and wrestling team, and was elected class president.
As his father traveled frequently for work and his mother also worked, Williams was attended to by the family's maid, who was his main companion. When Williams was 16, his father took early retirement and the family moved to Tiburon, California. Following their move, Williams attended Redwood High School in nearby Larkspur. At the time of his graduation in 1969, he was voted "Most Likely Not to Succeed" and "Funniest" by his classmates.
After high school graduation, Williams enrolled at Claremont Men's College in Claremont, California, to study political science; he dropped out to pursue acting. Williams studied theatre for three years at the College of Marin, a community college in Kentfield, California. According to College of Marin's drama professor James Dunn, the depth of the young actor's talent first became evident when he was cast in the musical Oliver! as Fagin. Williams was known to improvise during his time in Marin's drama program, leaving cast members in hysterics. Dunn called his wife after one late rehearsal to tell her that Williams "was going to be something special."
In 1973, Williams attained a full scholarship to the Juilliard School (Group 6, 1973–1976) in New York City. He was one of 20 students accepted into the freshman class and one of two students to be accepted by John Houseman into the Advanced Program at the school that year; the other was Christopher Reeve. William Hurt and Mandy Patinkin were also classmates. According to biographer Jean Dorsinville, Franklyn Seales and Williams were roommates at Juilliard. Reeve remembered his first impression of Williams when they were new students at Juilliard:
He wore tie-dyed shirts with track suit bottoms and talked a mile a minute. I'd never seen so much energy contained in one person. He was like an untied balloon that had been inflated and immediately released. I watched in awe as he virtually caromed off the walls of the classrooms and hallways. To say that he was "on" would be a major understatement.
Williams and Reeve had a class in dialects taught by Edith Skinner, who Reeve said was one of the world's leading voice and speech teachers. Skinner had no idea what to make of Williams, added Reeve, as he [Williams] could instantly perform in many dialects, including Scottish, Irish, English, Russian, and Italian. Their primary acting teacher was Michael Kahn, who was "equally baffled by this human dynamo," notes Reeve. Williams already had a reputation for being funny, but Kahn sometimes criticized his antics as simple stand-up comedy. In a later production, Williams silenced his critics with his convincing role of an old man in The Night of the Iguana, by Tennessee Williams. "He simply was the old man," observed Reeve. "I was astonished by his work and very grateful that fate had thrown us together."
Williams and Reeve remained close friends until Reeve's death in 2004. Reeve had struggled for years with being quadriplegic after a horse-riding accident.:16 Son Zak Williams remembered their friendship as having been like "brothers from another mother". Williams paid many of Reeve's medical bills and gave financial support to his family.
Williams left Juilliard during his junior year in 1976 at the suggestion of Houseman, who said there was nothing more Juilliard could teach him. Gerald Freedman, another of his teachers at Juilliard, notes that Williams was a "genius" and that the school's conservative and classical style of training did not suit him. No one was surprised that he left.
After his family moved to Marin County, Williams began his career doing stand-up comedy shows in the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid-1970s. His first performance took place at the Holy City Zoo, a comedy club in San Francisco, where he worked his way up from tending bar to getting on stage. In the 1960s, San Francisco was a center for a rock music renaissance, hippies, drugs, and a sexual revolution, and in the 1970s, Williams helped lead its "comedy renaissance," writes critic Gerald Nachman.:6 Williams says he found out about "drugs and happiness" during that period, adding that he saw "the best brains of my time turned to mud."
He moved to Los Angeles and continued doing stand-up shows at various clubs, including the Comedy Club, in 1977, where TV producer George Schlatter saw him. Schlatter, realizing that Williams would become an important force in show business, asked him to appear on a revival of his Laugh-In show. The show aired in late 1977 and became his debut TV appearance. Williams also performed a show at the LA Improv that same year for Home Box Office. While the Laugh-In revival failed, it led Williams into a career in television, during which period he continued doing stand-up at comedy clubs, such as the Roxy, to help him keep his improvisational skills sharp.
Williams has credited other comedians with having influenced and inspired him, including Jonathan Winters, Peter Sellers, Nichols and May, and Lenny Bruce. He attributed their influence to their ability to attract a more intellectual audience by using a higher level of wit.:43 He also liked Jay Leno for his quickness in ad-libbing comedy routines and Sid Caesar, whose acts he felt were "precious."
Jonathan Winters became his "idol" early in life; Williams first saw him on television at age 8 and paid him homage in interviews throughout his career.:259 Williams was inspired by Winters's ingenuity, realizing, he said, "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.":260
During an interview in London in 2002, he told Michael Parkinson that Peter Sellers was an important influence, especially his multi-character roles in Dr. Strangelove, stating, "It doesn't get better than that." British comedy actors Dudley Moore and Peter Cook were also among his influences, he told Parkinson.
Williams was also influenced by Richard Pryor's fearless ability to talk about his personal life on stage, with subjects including his use of drugs and alcohol, and Williams added those kinds of topics during his own performances. By bringing up such personal matters as a form of comedy, he told Parkinson, it was "cheaper than therapy" and gave him a way to release his pent up energy and emotions.:121
Williams won a Grammy Award for the recording of his 1979 live show at the Copacabana in New York, "Reality...What a Concept". Some of his later tours, after he became a TV and film star, include An Evening With Robin Williams (1982–83), Robin Williams: At The Met (1986) and Robin Williams: Live on Broadway (2002). The latter broke many long-held records for a comedy show. In some cases, tickets were sold out within thirty minutes of going on sale. In 1986, Williams released A Night at the Met.
After a six-year break, in August 2008, Williams announced a new 26-city tour titled "Weapons of Self-Destruction". He said that this was his last chance to make jokes at the expense of the Bush administration, but by the time the show was staged, only a few minutes covered that subject. The tour started at the end of September 2009 and concluded in New York on December 3, and was the subject of an HBO special on December 8, 2009.
Williams said that partly due to the stress of performing stand-up, he started using drugs and alcohol early in his career. He further said that he never drank or took drugs while on stage but occasionally performed when hungover from the previous day. During the period he was using cocaine, he said that it made him paranoid when performing on stage.
Williams once described the life of stand-up comedians:
It's a brutal field, man. They burn out. It takes its toll. Plus, the lifestyle—partying, drinking, drugs. If you're on the road, it's even more brutal. You gotta come back down to mellow your ass out, and then performing takes you back up. They flame out because it comes and goes. Suddenly they're hot, and then somebody else is hot. Sometimes they get very bitter. Sometimes they just give up. Sometimes they have a revival thing and they come back again. Sometimes they snap. The pressure kicks in. You become obsessed and then you lose that focus that you need.:34–35
Some, such as the critic Vincent Canby, were concerned that his monologues were so intense that it seemed as though at any minute his "creative process could reverse into a complete meltdown". His biographer Emily Herbert described his "intense, utterly manic style of stand-up [which sometimes] defies analysis ... [going] beyond energetic, beyond frenetic .. [and sometimes] dangerous ... because of what it said about the creator's own mental state."
Williams felt secure he would not run out of ideas, as the constant change in world events would keep him supplied. He also explained that he often used free association of ideas while improvising in order to keep the audience interested. He noted that the competitive comedy club atmosphere could cause problems. For example, some comedians accused him of intentionally copying their jokes, although Williams strongly denied ever doing so. Whoopi Goldberg defended him, explaining that it is difficult for comedians not to pick up and reuse another comedian's material, and that it is done "all the time." He later avoided going to performances of other comedians to deter similar accusations.
During a Playboy interview in 1992, Williams was asked whether he ever feared losing his balance between his work and his life. He replied, "There's that fear—if I felt like I was becoming not just dull but a rock, that I still couldn't speak, fire off or talk about things, if I'd start to worry or got too afraid to say something ... If I stop trying, I get afraid." While he attributed the recent suicide of novelist Jerzy Kosiński to his fear of losing his creativity and sharpness, Williams felt he could overcome those risks. For that, he credited his father for strengthening his self-confidence, telling him to never be afraid of talking about subjects which were important to him.
After the Laugh-In revival and appearing in the cast of The Richard Pryor Show on NBC, Williams was cast by Garry Marshall as the alien Mork in a 1978 episode of the TV series Happy Days. Williams impressed the producer with his quirky sense of humor when he sat on his head when asked to take a seat for the audition. As Mork, Williams improvised much of his dialogue and physical comedy, speaking in a high, nasal voice. Mork's appearance was so popular with viewers that it led to the spin-off television sitcom Mork & Mindy, which co-starred Pam Dawber, and ran from 1978 to 1982; the show was written to accommodate his extreme improvisations in dialog and behavior. Although he portrayed the same character as in Happy Days, the series was set in the present in Boulder, Colorado, instead of the late 1950s in Milwaukee. Mork & Mindy at its peak had a weekly audience of 60 million and was credited with turning Williams into a "superstar." According to critic James Poniewozik, the series was especially popular among young people as Williams became a "man and a child, buoyant, rubber-faced, an endless gusher of invention."
Mork became an extremely popular character, featured on posters, coloring books, lunch-boxes, and other merchandise. Mork & Mindy was such a success in its first season that Williams appeared on the March 12, 1979, cover of Time magazine. The cover photo, taken by Michael Dressler in 1979, is said to have "[captured] his different sides: the funnyman mugging for the camera, and a sweet, more thoughtful pose that appears on a small TV he holds in his hands" according to Mary Forgione of the Los Angeles Times. This photo was installed in the National Portrait Gallery in the Smithsonian Institution shortly after the actor's death to allow visitors to pay their respects. Williams was also on the cover of the August 23, 1979, issue of Rolling Stone magazine, with the cover photograph taken by famed photographer Richard Avedon.
Starting in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, Williams began to reach a wider audience with his stand-up comedy, including three HBO comedy specials, Off The Wall (1978), An Evening with Robin Williams (1983) and Robin Williams: Live at the Met (1986). Also in 1986, Williams co-hosted the 58th Academy Awards.
Williams was also a regular guest on various talk shows, including The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Late Night with David Letterman, on which he appeared 50 times. Letterman, who knew Williams for nearly 40 years, recalls seeing him first perform as a new comedian at the Comedy Store in Hollywood, where Letterman and other comedians had already been doing stand-up. "He came in like a hurricane," said Letterman, who said he then thought to himself, "Holy crap, there goes my chance in show business."
His stand-up work was a consistent thread through his career, as seen by the success of his one-man show (and subsequent DVD) Robin Williams: Live on Broadway (2002). He was voted 13th on Comedy Central's list "100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time" in 2004.
Williams and Billy Crystal were in an unscripted cameo at the beginning of an episode of the third season of Friends. His many TV appearances included an episode of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and he starred in an episode of Law and Order: SVU. In 2010, he appeared in a sketch with Robert De Niro on Saturday Night Live, and in 2012, guest-starred as himself in two FX series, Louie and Wilfred. In May 2013, CBS started a new series, The Crazy Ones, starring Williams, but the show was canceled after one season.
The first film role credited to Robin Williams is a small part in the 1977 low-budget comedy Can I Do It... 'Til I Need Glasses?. His first major performance is as the title character in Popeye (1980). There, Williams showcased the acting skills previously demonstrated in his television work; and the film's commercial disappointment was not blamed upon his role. He stars as the leading character in The World According to Garp (1982), which Williams considered "may have lacked a certain madness onscreen, but it had a great core". He continued with other smaller roles in less successful films, such as The Survivors (1983) and Club Paradise (1986), though he said these roles did not help advance his film career.
His first major break came from his starring role in director Barry Levinson's Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), which earned Williams a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor. The film is set in 1965 during the Vietnam War, with Williams playing the role of Adrian Cronauer, a radio shock jock who keeps the troops entertained with comedy and sarcasm. Williams was allowed to play the role without a script, improvising most of his lines. Over the microphone, he created voice impressions of people, including Walter Cronkite, Gomer Pyle, Elvis Presley, Mr. Ed, and Richard Nixon. "We just let the cameras roll," said producer Mark Johnson, and Williams "managed to create something new for every single take."
Many of his later roles were in comedies tinged with pathos. His roles in comedy and dramatic films garnered Williams an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (for his role as a psychologist in Good Will Hunting (1997)), as well as two previous Academy Award nominations (for playing an English teacher in Dead Poets Society (1989), and for playing a troubled homeless man in The Fisher King (1991)). In 1991, he played an adult Peter Pan in the film Hook, although he had said that he would have to lose twenty-five pounds.
Other roles Williams had in acclaimed dramatic films include Moscow on the Hudson (1984), Awakenings (1990), What Dreams May Come (1998), and Bicentennial Man (1999). In Insomnia, Williams portrayed a writer / killer on the run from a sleep-deprived Los Angeles policeman (played by Al Pacino) in rural Alaska. Also in 2002, in the psychological thriller One Hour Photo, Williams played an emotionally disturbed photo development technician who becomes obsessed with a family for whom he has developed pictures for a long time. The last Williams movie released during his lifetime was The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, a film addressing the value of life. In it, Williams played Henry Altmann, a terminally ill man who reassesses his life and works to redeem himself.
Among the actors who helped him during his acting career, he credited Robert De Niro, from whom he learned the power of silence and economy of dialog when acting, to portray the deep-driven man. From Dustin Hoffman, with whom he co-starred in Hook, he learned to take on totally different character types, and to transform his characters by extreme preparation. Mike Medavoy, producer of Hook, told its director, Steven Spielberg, that he intentionally teamed up Hoffman and Williams for the film because he knew they wanted to work together, and that Williams welcomed the opportunity of working with Spielberg. Williams benefited from working with Woody Allen, who directed him and Billy Crystal in Deconstructing Harry (1997), as Allen had knowledge of the fact that Crystal and Williams had often performed together on stage.
His penetrative acting in the role of a therapist in Good Will Hunting (1997) deeply influenced some real therapists and won Williams an Academy Award. In Awakenings (1990), Williams played a doctor modeled on Oliver Sacks, who wrote the book on which the film was based. Sacks later said the way the actor's mind worked was a "form of genius." In 1989 Williams played a private school teacher in Dead Poets Society, which included a final, emotional scene which some critics said "inspired a generation" and became a part of pop culture. Looking over most of his filmography, one writer was "struck by the breadth" and radical diversity of most roles Williams portrayed.
Terry Gilliam, who co-founded Monty Python and directed Williams in two of his films, The Fisher King and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), noted in 1992 that Williams had the ability to "go from manic to mad to tender and vulnerable," adding that to him Williams was "the most unique mind on the planet. There's nobody like him out there."
During his career, he starred as a voice actor in several animated films. His voice role as the Genie in the animated, musical fantasy film Aladdin (1992) was written specifically for Williams. The film's directors stated that they took a risk by writing the role, and successfully convinced him to take it. Through approximately 30 hours of tape, Williams was able to improvise much of his dialogue and impersonated dozens of celebrity voices, including Ed Sullivan, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Groucho Marx, Rodney Dangerfield, William F. Buckley, Peter Lorre, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Arsenio Hall. At first, Williams refused to take the role since it was a Disney movie, and he did not want the studio profiting by selling toys and novelty items based on the movie. He accepted the role with certain conditions: "I'm doing it basically because I want to be part of this animation tradition. I want something for my children. One deal is, I just don't want to sell anything — as in Burger King, as in toys, as in stuff." The film went on to become one of his most recognized and best loved roles, and was the highest-grossing film of 1992, winning numerous awards, including a Golden Globe for Williams; his performance as the Genie led the way for other animated films to incorporate actors with more star power for voice acting roles. He was named as a Disney Legend in 2009.
Williams continued to provide voices in other animated films, including FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992), Robots (2005), Happy Feet (2006), and an uncredited vocal performance in Everyone's Hero (2006). He also voiced the holographic Dr. Know character in the live-action film A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). He was the voice of The Timekeeper, a former attraction at the Walt Disney World Resort about a time-traveling robot who encounters Jules Verne and brings him to the future.
In 2006, he starred in The Night Listener, a thriller about a radio show host who realizes that a child with whom he has developed a friendship may or may not exist; that year, he starred in five movies, including Man of the Year, was the Surprise Guest at the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards and appeared on an episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition that aired on January 30, 2006.
Williams appeared opposite Steve Martin at Lincoln Center in an off-Broadway production of Waiting for Godot in 1988. He made his Broadway acting debut in Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on March 31, 2011. He headlined his own one-man show, Robin Williams: Live on Broadway, that played at the Broadway theatre in July 2002.
Williams married his first wife Valerie Velardi in June 1978, following a live-in relationship with comedian Elayne Boosler. Velardi and Williams met in 1976 while he was working as a bartender at a tavern in San Francisco. Their son Zachary Pym "Zak" Williams was born in 1983. Williams and Velardi divorced in 1988.
On April 30, 1989, he married Marsha Garces, Zachary's nanny, who was pregnant with his child. They had two children, Zelda Rae Williams (born 1989) and Cody Alan Williams (born 1991). In March 2008, Garces filed for divorce from Williams, citing irreconcilable differences. Their divorce was finalized in 2010. Williams married his third wife, graphics designer Susan Schneider, on October 22, 2011, in St. Helena, California. The two lived at their house in Sea Cliff, San Francisco, California.
Williams stated, "My children give me a great sense of wonder. Just to see them develop into these extraordinary human beings."
Williams was a member of the Episcopal Church. He described his denomination in a comedy routine as "I have that idea of Chicago protestant, Episcopal — Catholic light: half the religion, half the guilt." He also described himself as an "honorary Jew," and on Israel's 60th Independence Day in 2008, he appeared in Times Square, along with several other celebrities to wish Israel a happy birthday.
Williams was an enthusiast of both pen-and-paper role-playing games and video games. His daughter Zelda was named after the title character from The Legend of Zelda, a family favorite video game series, and he sometimes performed at consumer entertainment trade shows.
Williams became a devoted cycling enthusiast, having taken up the sport partly as a substitute for drugs. Eventually, he accumulated a large bicycle collection of his own and became a fan of professional road cycling, often traveling to racing events, such as the Tour de France. In 2016, his children donated 87 of his bicycles in support of the Challenged Athletes Foundation and Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.
In 1986, Williams teamed up with Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal to found Comic Relief USA. This annual HBO television benefit devoted to the homeless has raised $80 million as of 2014. Bob Zmuda, creator of Comic Relief, explains that Williams felt blessed because he came from a wealthy home, but wanted to do something to help those less fortunate. Williams made benefit appearances to support literacy and women's rights, along with appearing at benefits for veterans. He was a regular on the USO circuit, where he traveled to 13 countries and performed to approximately 100,000 troops. After his death, the USO thanked him "for all he did for the men and women of our armed forces."
Williams and his second wife Marsha founded a philanthropic organization called the Windfall Foundation to raise money for many charities. In December 1999, he sang in French on the BBC-inspired music video of international celebrities doing a cover of The Rolling Stones single "It's Only Rock 'n Roll (But I Like It)" for the charity Children's Promise.
In response to the 2010 Canterbury earthquake, he donated all proceeds of his "Weapons of Self Destruction" Christchurch performance to help rebuild the New Zealand city. Half the proceeds were donated to the Red Cross and half to the mayoral building fund. Williams performed with the USO for U.S. troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Williams had an addiction to cocaine. He was a casual friend of John Belushi, and the sudden death of Belushi in 1982 due to a drug overdose which happened the morning after the two had partied together, along with the birth of his own son Zak, prompted him to quit drugs and alcohol: "Was it a wake-up call? Oh yeah, on a huge level. The grand jury helped, too." Williams later referring to this event said, "It sobered the shit out of me." Williams turned to exercise and cycling to help alleviate his depression shortly after Belushi's death; according to bicycle shop owner Tony Tom, Williams said, "cycling saved my life."
In 2003, Williams started drinking alcohol again while working on a film in Alaska. In 2006, he checked himself in to a substance-abuse rehabilitation center in Newberg, Oregon, saying he was an alcoholic.
Years afterward, Williams acknowledged his failure to maintain sobriety, but said he never returned to using cocaine, declaring in a 2010 interview:
No. Cocaine – paranoid and impotent, what fun. There was no bit of me thinking, ooh, let's go back to that. Useless conversations until midnight, waking up at dawn feeling like a vampire on a day pass. No.
In March 2009, he was hospitalized due to heart problems. He postponed his one-man tour for surgery to replace his aortic valve. The surgery was completed on March 13, 2009, at the Cleveland Clinic.
His publicist Mara Buxbaum commented that he was suffering from severe depression prior to his death. His wife Susan Schneider stated that in the period before his death, Williams had been sober, but was diagnosed with early stage Parkinson's disease, which was information he was "not yet ready to share publicly." An autopsy revealed that Williams had diffuse Lewy body dementia, which had been diagnosed as Parkinson's. This may have contributed to his depression.
In an essay published in the journal Neurology two years after his death, Susan Schneider revealed that the pathology of Lewy body disease in Williams was described by several doctors as among the worst pathologies they had seen. She described the early symptoms of his disease as beginning in October 2013. It included a sudden and prolonged spike in fear and anxiety, constipation, urinary difficulty, heartburn, sleeplessness and insomnia, a poor sense of smell, stress, and a slight tremor in his left hand. Eventually, she said, he suffered from paranoia, delusions, severe insomnia, memory loss, and high cortisol levels, indicating stress. According to Schneider, "Robin was losing his mind and he was aware of it ... He kept saying, 'I just want to reboot my brain.'"
On August 11, 2014, Williams died by suicide at his home in Paradise Cay, California. In the initial report released on August 12, the Marin County Sheriff's Office deputy coroner stated Williams had hanged himself. His body was cremated at Montes Chapel of the Hills in San Anselmo and his ashes were scattered in San Francisco Bay on August 21.
The final autopsy report, released in November 2014, affirmed that Williams had committed suicide as initially described; neither alcohol nor illegal drugs were involved, while all prescription drugs present in his body were at "therapeutic" levels. The report also noted that Williams had been suffering "a recent increase in paranoia". An examination of his brain tissue revealed the presence of "diffuse Lewy body dementia." Describing the disease as "the terrorist inside my husband's brain", his wife Susan Schneider stated, "however you look at it—the presence of Lewy bodies took his life," referring to his previous diagnosis of Parkinson's.
The Lewy Body Dementia Association (LBDA) clarified the distinction between the term used in the autopsy report, diffuse Lewy body dementia—which is more commonly called diffuse Lewy body disease and refers to the underlying disease process—and the umbrella term, Lewy body dementia—which encompasses both Parkinson's disease dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB). According to Dennis Dickson, the LBDA spokesperson, "The report confirms he experienced depression, anxiety and paranoia, which may occur in either Parkinson's disease or dementia with Lewy bodies", adding that, in Parkinson's, "Lewy bodies are generally limited in distribution, but in DLB, the Lewy bodies are spread widely throughout the brain, as was the case with Robin Williams."
Williams's death instantly became global news. The entertainment world, friends, and fans responded to his death through social and other media outlets. His wife, Susan Schneider, said: "I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings. I am utterly heartbroken." His daughter Zelda Williams responded to his death by stating that the "world is forever a little darker, less colorful and less full of laughter in his absence". U.S. President Barack Obama said of Williams: "He was one of a kind. He arrived in our lives as an alien – but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit."
In honor of his theater work, the lights of Broadway were dimmed for the evening of August 14, 2014. That night, the cast of the Aladdin musical honored Williams by having the audience join them in a sing-along of "Friend Like Me", an Oscar-nominated song originally sung by Williams in the 1992 film Aladdin. Fans of Williams created makeshift memorials at his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and at locations from his television and film career, such as the bench in Boston's Public Garden featured in Good Will Hunting; the Pacific Heights, San Francisco, home used in Mrs. Doubtfire; the sign for Parrish Shoes in Keene, New Hampshire, where parts of Jumanji were filmed; and the Boulder, Colorado, home used for Mork & Mindy. Work on a book biography was begun by New York Times writer David Itzkoff in 2014, and was published in 2018, entitled simply Robin. In addition, a tunnel on Highway 101 north of the Golden Gate Bridge was officially named the "Robin Williams Tunnel" on February 29, 2016.
On television, during the 66th Primetime Emmy Awards on August 25, 2014, Billy Crystal presented a tribute to Williams, referring to him as "the brightest star in our comedy galaxy". On September 9, 2014, PBS aired a one-hour special devoted to his career, and on September 27, 2014, dozens of leading stars and celebrities held a tribute in San Francisco to celebrate his life and career. British heavy metal band Iron Maiden dedicated a song titled "Tears of a Clown" to Williams on their 2015 album The Book of Souls. The song looks into Williams' depression and suicide, as well as how he attempted to hide his condition from the public.
Shortly after his death, Disney Channel, Disney XD, and Disney Junior all aired the original Aladdin commercial-free over the course of a week, with a dedicated drawing of the genie at the end of each airing before the credits.
Although Williams was first recognized as a stand-up comedian and television star, he later became known for acting in film roles of substance and serious drama. He was considered a "national treasure" by many in the entertainment industry and by the public.
His on-stage energy and improvisational skill became a model for a new generation of stand-up comedians. Many comedians valued the way he worked highly personal issues into his comedy routines, especially his honesty about drug and alcohol addiction, along with depression. According to media scholar Derek A. Burrill, because of the openness with which Williams spoke about his own life, "probably the most important contribution he made to pop culture, across so many different media, was as Robin Williams the person."
Williams created a signature free-form persona in comedy, in a style that was so widely and uniquely identified with him, that new comedians imitated Williams personally. Jim Carrey impersonated his Mork character early in his own career. This high-spirited persona has been generally credited with paving the way for the growing comedy scene which developed in San Francisco. Young comedians felt more liberated on stage by seeing his spontaneously diverse range: "one moment acting as a bright, mischievous child, then as a wise philosopher or alien from outer space." According to Judd Apatow, the eclectic performer's rapid-fire improvisational style was an inspiration as well as an influence for other comedians, but that his talent was so extremely unusual that no one else could possibly attempt to copy it.
His film performances often influenced other actors, both in and out of the film industry. Director Chris Columbus, who directed Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire, says that watching him work "was a magical and special privilege. His performances were unlike anything any of us had ever seen, they came from some spiritual and otherworldly place." Looking over most of his filmography, Alyssa Rosenberg at The Washington Post was "struck by the breadth" and radical diversity of most of his roles, writing that "Williams helped us grow up."
Janet Hirshenson later revealed in an interview that Robin Williams had expressed interest in portraying Rubeus Hagrid in the Harry Potter films, but was rejected by Chris Columbus due to the "British-only edict".