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Comic supernova Robin Williams dies at 63

Robin Wiliams poses during an interview on June 15, 2007.
By Haven Daley & Hillel Italie
AP (*)

Academy Award winner found dead at home following apparent suicide

SAN FRANCISCO — Robin Williams, the Academy Award winner and comic supernova whose explosions of pop culture riffs and impressions dazzled audiences for decades and made him a gleamy-eyed laureate for the Information Age, died yesterday in an apparent suicide. He was 63.

Williams was pronounced dead at his home in California yesterday, according to the sheriff’s office in Marin County, north of San Francisco. The sheriff’s office said a preliminary investigation shows the cause of death to be a suicide due to asphyxia.

“This morning, 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,” said Williams’ wife, Susan Schneider. “On behalf of Robin’s family, we are asking for privacy during our time of profound grief. As he is remembered, it is our hope the focus will not be on Robin’s death, but on the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions,”

Williams had been battling severe depression recently, said Mara Buxbaum, his press representative. Marin County Communications received an emergency call at 11.55am local time reporting an unconscious man who turned out to be Williams inside his home in Tiburon, according to the coroner’s statement. He was pronounced dead at 12.02pm. Williams was last seen alive at his home at 10pm yesterday.

From his breakthrough in the late 1970s as the alien in the hit TV show Mork and Mindy, through his stand-up act and such films as Good Morning, Vietnam, the short, barrel-chested Williams ranted and shouted as if just sprung from solitary confinement. Loud, fast, manic, he parodied everyone from John Wayne to Keith Richards, impersonating a Russian immigrant as easily as a pack of Nazi attack dogs.

He was a riot in drag in Mrs. Doubtfire, or as a cartoon genie in Aladdin. He won his Academy Award in a rare, but equally intense dramatic role, as a teacher in the 1997 film Good Will Hunting.

Following Williams on stage, Billy Crystal once observed, was like trying to top the Civil War. In a 1993 interview, Williams recalled an appearance early in his career on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Bob Hope was also there. “It was interesting,” Williams said. “He was supposed to go on before me and I was supposed to follow him, and I had to go on before him because he was late. I don’t think that made him happy. I don’t think he was angry, but I don’t think he was pleased. I had been on the road and I came out, you know, gassed, and I killed and had a great time. Hope comes out and Johnny leans over and says, ‘Robin Williams, isn’t he funny?’ Hope says, ‘Yeah, he’s wild. But you know, Johnny, it’s great to be back here with you.”‘

In 1992, Carson chose Williams and Bette Midler as his final guests.

Like so many funnymen, he had serious ambitions, winning his Oscar for his portrayal of an empathetic therapist in Good Will Hunting. He also played for tears in Awakenings, Dead Poets Society and What Dreams May Come, something that led New York Times critic Stephen Holden to once say he dreaded seeing the actor’s “Humpty Dumpty grin and crinkly moist eyes.”

Williams also won three Golden Globes, for Good Morning, Vietnam, Mrs. Doubtfire and The Fisher King. His other film credits included Robert Altman’s Popeye (a box office bomb), Paul Mazursky’s Moscow on the Hudson, Steven Spielberg’s Hook and Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry. Williams also won two Emmy awards, in 1987 and 1988, for roles in variety shows. In all, he was nominated eight times for Emmys, including for Mork & Mindy.

On stage, Williams joined fellow comedian Steve Martin in a 1988 Broadway revival of Waiting for Godot. “I dread the word ‘art,”‘ Williams said in a 1989 interview. “That’s what we used to do every night before we’d go on with Waiting for Godot. We’d go, ‘No art. Art dies tonight.’ We’d try to give it a life, instead of making Godot so serious. It’s cosmic vaudeville staged by the Marquis de Sade.”

Winner of a Grammy in 2003 for best spoken comedy album, Robin Williams — Live 2002, he once likened his act to the daily jogs he took across the Golden Gate Bridge. There were times he would look over the edge, one side of him pulling back in fear, the other insisting he could fly.

“You have an internal critic, an internal drive that says, ‘OK, you can do more.’ Maybe that’s what keeps you going,” Williams said. “Maybe that’s a demon. ... Some people say, ‘It’s a muse.’ No, it’s not a muse! It’s a demon! DO IT YOU BASTARD!! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!! THE LITTLE DEMON!!”

Shooting star

His personal life was often short on laughter. He had acknowledged drug and alcohol problems in the 1970s and ‘80s and was among the last to see John Belushi before the **** Saturday Night Live star died of a drug overdose in 1982. Williams announced in recent years that he was again drinking but rebounded well enough to joke about it during his recent tour. “I went to rehab in wine country,” he said, “to keep my options open.”

“You look at the world and see how scary it can be sometimes and still try to deal with the fear,” he told the AP in 1989. “Comedy can deal with the fear and still not paralyze you or tell you that it’s going away. You say, OK, you got certain choices here, you can laugh at them and then once you’ve laughed at them and you have expunged the demon, now you can deal with them. That’s what I do when I do my act.”

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