Being Robin Williams

UPDATED: May 15, 2024
PUBLISHED: April 22, 2014

Editor's note: This profile of Robin Williams was originally published in the March 2014 issue of SUCCESS. Robin Williams died August 11, 2014 at the age of 63 after a long battle with depression.

Robin Williams isn’t always the frenetic crazy man, although that’s what we might love most about him. He can also be soft-spoken, his blue eyes intense as he talks about the ups and downs of his life—and then turn around with a twinkle to start a riff that makes you laugh out loud.

After his breakout TV comedy role as the lovable alien in the late 1970s-early ’80s hit Mork & Mindy, Williams launched a successful film career. He recently returned to series TV for the first time since Mork in CBS’s new comedy series The Crazy Ones.

The show is right in Williams’s wheelhouse, as he plays an off-center ad guy reconnecting with his daughter, portrayed by Sarah Michelle Gellar, who has joined the ad agency. Before he even met with veteran TV producer David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, The Practice), Williams jokes that he almost stalked him by cycling to the San Francisco-area home Kelley shares with wife Michelle Pfeiffer.

“We didn’t know him prior to this series, but once we did, we got along famously, and Michelle just loves him,” Kelley tells me. “Obviously his comedic abilities are legendary, but he’s also a Juilliard-trained actor, which people sometimes forget. It was a no-brainer to cast him because the character’s genius came out of his craziness. We stick to the script, but the icing is letting Robin be Robin.”

And being Robin means having an entire treasure chest of experiences upon which to draw. “Part of the things that have happened in my real life, like rehab, divorce, have all been built into this character [who has had] an interesting life just like myself,” says Williams, 62. “I went to rehab in wine country just to keep my options open.”

Williams’s darker days seem to be in the rearview mirror now, but in the heady days of early success, he led a raucous lifestyle that included partying with the late John Belushi. Williams had been with the Saturday Night Live star not long before his death after overdosing on cocaine and heroin.

Williams famously said of his drug of choice: “Cocaine is God’s way of saying you are making too much money.” He quit drugs and alcohol in 1983 shortly before the birth of his older son, Zak. It was 20 years before he relapsed, entering rehab in 2006 after the intervention of friends and family. He has stayed sober since.

“There’s a higher power, but there’s also a lower power,” he tells me of his last bout that began a decade ago. “And that lower power tells you it’s OK. But as soon as you take that first drink, you know it isn’t. I started with a miniature bottle of Jack Daniel’s, and soon I had so many in my pockets it sounded like wind chimes.”

Through all his personal travails, he earned Grammys, Emmys and an Oscar, and became a tremendous box office draw in such films as Mrs. Doubtfire, The Birdcage and Aladdin. He took his considerable acting abilities even further in dramatic turns such as One Hour Photo, Awakenings and Moscow on the Hudson . He earned Oscar nods for Good Morning, Vietnam; Dead Poets Society; and The Fisher King before taking home the golden boy for Good Will Hunting.

Williams also gained respect from his colleagues as a hard worker and consummate professional. In 2012 he guest-starred in Louis C.K.’s low-budget FX comedy Louie. Louis C.K. remembers shooting a scene in the cold, pouring rain in a Brooklyn, N.Y., cemetery: “That day we felt like we were at that siege of Leningrad,” he says. “We gave him a Town Car to sit in, but he wouldn’t. He just stood out there with the rest of us.”

The comic has admired Williams since he was a kid, and found his childhood idol to be exactly what he expected. “He has so many tools,” Louis C.K. says. “He’s a great stand-up, and as an actor, he’s really something. As a fan, I was thrilled to have him on the show, but also now to have him as a friend and as an actor—to work with him—it was great.”

With all his success, Williams could have easily turned into a self-important jerk, but he says his comic pals keep his ego in check. “It’s wonderful being part of the comic community,” Williams says. “When I won my Oscar, a comic friend called me and yelled ‘Popeye!’ and hung up.” The caller referred to Williams’s first film role, which required significant redubbing because he mumbled so badly. “Keeps me humble.”

Despite a few cinematic setbacks, including the all-time cringer Death to Smoochy, he hasn’t done badly for a guy voted “Least Likely to Succeed” by classmates at Redwood High School in Larkspur, Calif. The son of a Ford Motor Co. executive and a model from New Orleans was born in Chicago and raised for many years in Northern California. Each parent had a grown son from previous relationships, so Williams grew up as the only child in the home.

His father’s other son died from complications of heart surgery in 2007. His mother’s other son became a high school physics teacher, which influenced Williams. “As a kid I had a fascination with science, and my brother teaches science in Memphis,” he says. “Science fiction just seems to be what’s coming next in science. I watch a lot of sci-fi, and I did Bicentennial Man because of that. I’ll make amends for that movie later.”

He studied at Claremont Men’s College (now Claremont McKenna College) and the College of Marin before being only one of 20 students accepted into the prestigious Juilliard’s 1973 freshman class. One classmate was Christopher Reeve, who became a lifelong friend. After Reeve was paralyzed in a horseback-riding accident, Williams sought to perk up his friend’s spirits by invading his hospital room and pretending he was an insane Russian doctor. “I laughed for the first time, and I knew that life was going to be OK,” Reeve recalled in his 1995 speech—his first public appearance since his accident—during an awards presentation for Williams’s work with an actors’ advocacy group.

Comedy has helped Williams get through tough times. He has described himself as chubby and lonely while growing up, seeking solace in his vivid imagination. He was also known as a quiet child, and even now when talking to him one-on-one, he comes across as almost shy when he isn’t breaking into a character or one of his many dialects. His hair is now salt-and-pepper, and he seems to be more  reflective.

He turns somber when talking about his 2009 heart surgery, and he spoke at length about his post-heart valve procedure during a Television Critics Association news conference a few months later while promoting his stand-up special on HBO, Robin Williams: Weapons of Self Destruction.

Williams also spoke then about being on the David Letterman show and talking during the break about heart surgeries (“His quintuple bypass trumps me big time”). “Letterman asked, ‘Do you find yourself getting emotional?’ and I said, ‘Oh, yeah.’”

“You really do appreciate the simplest things like breath and friends,” Williams told the TV critics. When pressed about feeling some urgency to do something he’d never done before, Williams reverted to his funny mode: “Dive out of a plane, this time with a ’chute. But really, I just want to appreciate life; it’s just great to be here. I think about how we can make it with a little bit of comedy, a little bit of laughter.”

He also reflected on his greatest personal and professional accomplishments. “My three children, all of them astonish me. I’m not the world’s greatest dad—I’m a work in progress, but I’m so proud of them and all they have done,” Williams said. “It’s been wonderful to make that connection with my children.”

Williams’s son Zak, now 30, has an MBA from Columbia University, is working with a tech startup, and is co-founder of a New York art gallery with wife Alex Mallick. From his second marriage, Zelda, 24, is an actress and writer, and Cody, 22, is a student.

What makes Williams happy these days are the basics, he says during our recent interview. “My family, work, being around creative people. When I’m not doing the TV show, I like doing something called ‘set list,’ where you get seven suggestions and set up an improv show. That’s a joy—I was going to say it’s like freebasing. Ix-nay!” he says, laughing at the drug reference.

During an outdoor CBS party last summer, Williams was nattily dressed in a suit and casual collarless shirt while mingling with members of the media, executives and other stars. He good-naturedly chatted about how this 2013–14 TV season is full of names once associated with box-office draws, from James Caan to James Spader and even fellow sitcom icon Michael J. Fox.

“Look at all these people—they are happy. They are all working. I’ve got a JOB!” Williams said. “Actors need to work, and it’s hard out there.”

His reasons for getting back into a regular series gig are simple: He likes the creative direction that TV has taken as opposed to the movie industry, and, quite frankly, he says he needed the money. Although that’s not completely true.

He’s still got plenty of shekels and loads of assets, including a Tuscan villalike mansion on his estate in Napa, for sale at press time for $29 million. But as he cruises comfortably into his 60s, Williams longs for a little stability and some downsizing. He still does stand-up on his own terms—he loves dropping by small clubs in Los Angeles (while he’s working on the TV series) and in the Bay Area to hone his comedic skills.

For someone as successful as Williams, it seems inconceivable that he wouldn’t be able to keep raking in the big bucks as a movie star throughout his life. But Williams says that isn’t the case for him or for other well-known celebrities.

“There are so few older super-hero movies being made,” he deadpans. “I’m lucky if I can end up playing the villain. I haven’t had a starring role in a big movie in a long time. The last things I’ve done are going on the road, doing stand-up and independent movies.”

Of course, one of those movies was the acclaimed Lee Daniels' The Butler, in which he played Dwight D. Eisenhower. “Doing The Butler was wonderful, as was Boulevard, where a man falls in love with a male prostitute—not a comedy, and I was the old guy.”

Williams also has four films coming out in 2014 in addition to working on his series. That’s just shy of his six films that came out in 2006, ranging from Night at the Museum to the animated Happy Feet.

But he says he wants to simplify his life, and joshes that his divorces helped with his downscaling. “I say that they should call it all-the-money instead of alimony,” jokes the thrice-married Williams.

He’s now married to graphic artist Susan Schneider, whom he met shortly before his heart surgery and wed in Napa in 2011. Williams’s first marriage to Valerie Velardi ended after 10 years in 1988. He and second wife Marsha Garces split up after 19 years. Between the two divorces, Williams reportedly lost more than $20 million. But he says he gained good relationships with his ex-wives and his now-grown children by settling amicably.

And was he just joking about doing the series because he needed the money? “Joking and real. The idea of having a steady gig is really important right now, because otherwise I need to go back and do stand-up. It’s tough waiting for new movies, because they are few and far between, and small movies don’t pay a lot,” Williams admits. “Not that I’m griping about it, really. But to have a job, working with such creative people, well, it’s pretty wonderful.”

Williams has always been about the spectacular—the spectacular successes and the spectacular failures. “The idea has always been to go for it, and in failing you might find some interesting stuff,” he says. “I love this environment of an ad agency, where you find the ultimate in the creative processes—and also where you can go too far.”

Despite his wackiness, Williams has matured since he first hit the public consciousness as Mork from Ork. “Back then, with Mork & Mindy, I was on everything but skates,” he says. “But now, to be present, to be part of the process and part of this group, it’s just exciting to see where you can push it.”

Jessica Krampe is the digital managing editor for A graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, Jessica has worked for news, entertainment, business and lifestyle publications. Outside of the daily grind, she enjoys happy hours, live music and traveling.