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Thunder of laughter and a demon

Robin Williams

Robin Williams 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!!”

Williams, a brilliant shape-shifter who could channel his frenetic energy into delightful comic characters like Mrs. Doubtfire or harness it into richly nuanced work like his Oscar-winning turn in Good Will Hunting, died on Monday in an apparent suicide. He was 63.

Williams hanged himself in his California home and died by asphyxia, a coroner said, based on preliminary findings. The actor was found dead by his personal assistant at midday, suspended from a belt wedged between a door and a doorframe in a seated position just off the ground. Officials also found a pocket knife near Williams and cuts with dried blood on his wrist.

“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,” said Williams’s wife, Susan Schneider. In addition to his wife, Williams is survived by three children.

‘Robin Williams was...

Williams had been battling severe depression recently. Just last month, he announced he was returning to a 12-step treatment programme he said he needed after 18 months of non-stop work. He had sought treatment in 2006 after a relapse following 20 years of sobriety.

From his breakthrough in the late 1970s as the alien in the hit TV comedy Mork & Mindy, through his stand-up comedy 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 and manic, he parodied everyone from John Wayne to Keith Richards, impersonating a Russian immigrant as easily as a pack of Nazi attack dogs.

“Robin was a lightning storm of comic genius and our laughter was the thunder that sustained him. He was a pal and I can’t believe he’s gone,” said Steven Spielberg who directed Williams in Hook.

Williams was a riot in drag in Mrs. Doubtfire, or as a cartoon genie in Aladdin. He won his Academy Award in a rare dramatic role, playing a therapist who works with a troubled prodigy played by Matt Damon.

In Dead Poets Society, he played an unconventional English teacher at a 1950s boarding school who inspires his students to tear up their textbooks and seize the day. Or, as Williams’s character famously put it in the original Latin, Carpe diem.

In India, many remembered the master of impressions for his tender portrayal in Mrs. Doubtfire, when he played the part of a British nanny whose identity he assumed as a divorced father to be with his children. Dead Poets Society continues to be a rite-of-passage movie on DVD at homes with pre-teens.

Kamal Haasan, whose Chachi 420 is inspired by Mrs. Doubtfire, said Williams “brought dignity to male crying”. “Comedians are invariably critics of society who have masked their anger with humour. Constantly maintaining a funny facade leads to depression. Robin Williams’s true nature is being quick to tears. You can see it in his films,” Haasan said in a statement.

Onstage Williams was known for ricochet riffs on politics, social issues and cultural matters both high and low; tales of drug and alcohol abuse; lewd commentaries on relations between the sexes; and lightning-like improvisations on anything an audience member might toss at him.

His irreverence was legendary and uncurtailable. “Chuck, Cam, great to see you,” he once called out from a London stage at Charles, Prince of Wales, and his wife, Lady Camilla Bowles. “Yo yo, wussup Wales, House of Windsor, keepin’ it real!”

Williams identified with the wildest and angriest of performers.

“You look at the world and see how scary it can be sometimes and still try to deal with the fear,” he said in 1989. “Comedy can deal with the fear and still not paralyse 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.”

Williams could handle a script, when he felt like it, and also think on his feet. He ad-libbed in many of his films and was just as quick in person. During a media tour for Awakenings, when director Penny Marshall mistakenly described the film as being set in a “menstrual hospital”, instead of “mental hospital”, Williams quickly stepped in and joked: “It’s a period piece.”

Some of Williams’s performances were criticised for a mawkish sentimentality, like Patch Adams, a 1998 film that once again cast him as a good-hearted doctor, and Bicentennial Man, a 1999 science-fiction feature in which he played an android.

Williams made his acting debut on Broadway in 2011 in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, a play written by Rajiv Joseph and set amid the American invasion of Iraq.

The privileged son of a Detroit auto executive who grew up chubby and lonesome, playing by himself with 2,000 toy soldiers in an empty room of a suburban mansion, Williams, as a boy, hardly fit the stereotype of someone who would grow to become a brainy comedian, or a goofy one, but he was both.

He opened up more in high school when he joined the drama club, and he was accepted into the Juilliard Academy, where he had several classes in which he and Christopher Reeve were the only students.

Williams’s personal life was often short on laughter. He had acknowledged drug and alcohol problems in the 1970s and 1980s.

Williams was an admitted abuser of cocaine — which he also referred to as “Peruvian marching power” and “the devil’s dandruff”. In 2006, he checked himself into a rehab centre to be treated for an addiction to alcohol, having fallen off the wagon after some 20 years of sobriety.

He later explained in an interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer that this addiction had not been “caused by anything, it’s just there”.

“It waits,” Williams continued. “It lays in wait for the time when you think, ‘It’s fine now, I’m OK’. Then, the next thing you know, it’s not OK Then you realise, ‘Where am I? I didn’t realise I was in Cleveland’.”

In 2009, he underwent heart surgery for an aortic valve replacement at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, an event that Williams said caused him to take stock of his life. “You appreciate little things,” he said in an interview in The New York Times, “like walks on the beach with a defibrillator”.

More seriously, Williams said he had reassessed himself as a performer. “How much more can you give?” he told The Times. “Other than, literally, open-heart surgery onstage? Not much. But the only cure you have right now is the honesty of going, this is who you are. I know who I am.”