I never interviewed Robin Williams but I saw him perform in Downtown Pittsburgh in the early 1980s at what I think was the Stanley Theater.
He was wearing those sort of parachute pants that were big back in the day and he perspired on stage and kept the audience in nearly constant laughter. (It takes a lot to make me laugh and he could, on stage or on any late-night talk show where you knew he would keep you awake, alert and entertained.)
His mind clearly whirred and whirled and fired at a faster rate than the rest of us, and it’s just so sad to think he was found dead today at age 63, an apparent suicide.
Instead of dwelling on the mournful, here’s a look back to the night he won the Academy Award for “Good Will Hunting.” He took the supporting actor honor the year Kim Basinger was named supporting actress for “L.A. Confidential.”
When Williams said he wanted to be an actor, his father suggested a backup career, like welding. On March 23, 1998, he dabbled in some metal work, hoisting an 8 1/2 -pound statue called Oscar.
Considered a comic genius with one of the quickest wits in show business, Williams won for a serious role. He played Sean McGuire, a college professor and therapist, who helps Will Hunting come to terms with his genius and face a future far from South Boston.
Williams hugged the film’s (then) youthful creators, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, and joked he wanted to see some I.D. “Thank you for putting me in this category with four extraordinary men,’’ he said, also paying tribute to director Gus Van Sant, the people of South Boston, his then-wife and (looking heavenward) “my father, up there.’’
Backstage, Williams expounded on his father: “He was an elegant man. He was wonderful. When he saw I found something I loved, he stood by me. He seriously said that about the welding. And when I went to my first class and saw the teacher had one eye, I was out of there.’’
By then already a Grammy and Emmy winner, Williams had played everything from an extraterrestrial to a woman named “Mrs. Doubtfire.” The co-star of television’s “Mork and Mindy,’’ Williams made his film debut in Robert Altman’s "Popeye.’’
The film “Good Morning, Vietnam’’ earned him his first Academy Award nomination, “Dead Poets Society’’ brought his second and “The Fisher King’’ a third.
Backstage, Williams said he was pleased his Oscar win came that year. “The other nominations were just foreplay. I’m very proud. This is an extraordinary piece.’’
As reported by my colleague Marylynn Uricchio, who was in Los Angeles while I was here, Williams followed Basinger into the press room. He bounded into the room after her and said, “It’s ‘Bass-inger.’ Alec [Baldwin] is outside. Don’t piss him off. He hit a photographer.’’
The couple, of course, later divorced.
A frenzy of ebullient, kinetic energy, Williams pretended the reporters raising numbered cards to ask questions were bidders at an auction or that he was getting their cars. He was one of the smartest actors in Hollywood, and genuinely revered by his peers and the press alike, Uricchio wrote.
“It’s extraordinary. It’s the golden dude. I’ve been here three times before and lost. My odds were as good as the Jamaican bob-sledding team. One of the people I admire most was Peter Sellers. When you’re a comic, you feel like a slightly damaged person. I don’t know what it is with comics and the Academy, but it’s changing.’’
(Top photo, AP/Reed Saxon, File and photo to right from 2010 when Williams was an Oscar presenter, by John Farrell, A.M.P.A.S.)
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