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Robin Williams, who died Monday, brought brutal honesty to roles

  • Actor and comedian Robin Williams poses during a press tour promoting his new movie "License To Wed" in Santa Monica, Calif., Friday, June 15, 2007. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

Robin Williams was too much. For much of his career, the irrepressible Williams, who was found dead in a suspected suicide Monday near Tiburon at the age of 63, forswore subtlety.

Ever since bursting into the public consciousness as the manic, rainbow-suspender-wearing TV alien in the sitcom “Mork & Mindy,” he seemed to be permanently toggling between two points on the emotional dial: wild, hyperkinetic looniness or unabashed sincerity. In more recent years, he seemed to have discovered different, darker corners that allowed him to exhibit some of his most compelling work, not as the one-man purveyor of over-the-top joie de vivre but as a gifted actor unafraid of his own shadows.

The Marin County Sheriff’s Office said Williams was pronounced dead at his Marin County home mid-day Monday. 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.

For audiences of a certain age, Williams was best known as the man with the motormouth persona and constantly shifting alter egos who would jump effortlessly into impersonations during his breathless, scene-stealing appearances on “The Tonight Show” and other late-night talk programs. Whether he was channeling Popeye with note-perfect malapropisms in the eponymous 1980 movie or portraying the loud, loquacious disc jockey in “Good Morning, Vietnam,” Williams could be counted on to bring unbridled energy and a near-bottomless supply of ad libs to roles that felt tailored to his singular gifts.

Williams received his first Oscar nomination for his performance in “Good Morning, Vietnam.” But when Peter Weir cast him as the inspirational English teacher John Keating in the drama “Dead Poets Society,” some observers were still skeptical that he could tamp down his natural-born mania long enough to be convincing.

But his performance in that film, a turn that Washington Post critic Rita Kempley described as “serenely eccentric” in 1989, launched a chapter in Williams’s career that swung — sometimes too easily — from broad comedy and family fare (“Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Aladdin,” “Happy Feet”) to films that, while capitalizing on his eccentricity, made sure not to stint on sensitivity and uplift. After receiving two more Academy Award nominations — for “Dead Poets Society” and the 1991 Terry Gilliam movie “The Fisher King,” — Williams finally won in 1998, for his turn as a sympathetic therapist in the Ben Affleck-Matt Damon collaboration “Good Will Hunting.”

As impressive as Williams was in those roles — and as much fun as it was to watch him later channel not one but two presidents, in the “Night at the Museum” movies (Teddy Roosevelt) and last year’s “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” (Dwight D. Eisenhower) — it was the smaller films Williams did along the way that seemed to extract his most interesting qualities, the ones he labored so mightily to keep hidden, whether with hysterically pitched comedy, super-sincere drama or too-cute, begging-to-be-liked turns in such creatively bereft paydays as “Patch Adams” and “Old Dogs.”

He never shied from subversive material: He has a cameo in Bobcat Goldthwait’s poisonously funny satire “Shakes the Clown,” and he went out of his way to dismantle his own sunnily unthreatening public persona as a washed-up, foul-mouthed kids performer in Danny DeVito’s scabrous showbiz parody “Death to Smoochy.” But it wasn’t until 2002’s psychological thriller “One Hour Photo” that Williams seemed to shed the mannerisms and self-conscious quirk completely.


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