Beginning in 1952 when the Cecil B. deMille Award was presented to its namesake visionary director, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has awarded its most prestigious prize 66 times. From Walt Disney to Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor to Steven Spielberg and 62 others, the deMille has gone to luminaries – actors, directors, producers – who have left an indelible mark on Hollywood. Sometimes mistaken with a career achievement award, per HFPA statute, the deMille is more precisely bestowed for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment”. In this series, HFPA cognoscente and former president Philip Berk profiles deMille laureates through the years.
Robin Williams’s suicide in August of 2014 was a tragic loss. Arguably the greatest improvisational comedian of all time, he will never be replaced.
At the Golden Globes ceremony in 1991, when presenter Michael J.Fox announced the Best Actress in a TV Series award, and winner Christine Lahti was in the bathroom, the theme from Chicago Hope dragged on and on. How long might we have to wait for her to get back on stage? Suddenly Robin Williams, who was seated in the pit, jumped on stage and broke into his brilliant spiel which kept the audience in stitches until Lahti breathlessly joined him on stage and gave her apologetic acceptance speech.
Robin was born to be brilliant. But not always funny, as he once told the HFPA. “Actually, I was a very quiet child. I had an isolated childhood. Being an only child, you don't have a lot of friends. We lived in places where there weren't many kids. So that's where I developed playing with voices. You make that your world.”
And what a world he made. After attending Julliard, where he was considered a genius, he tried his hand at standup, and while performing at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles he was signed by Gary Marshall to play Mork, first as a recurring character on Happy Days and then in his own TV show Mork and Mindy, which became an overnight sensation and ran successfully for four years and prompted Time magazine put him on their cover. It also earned him his first Golden Globe as best actor in a TV Series- Comedy or Musical.
When Hollywood beckoned it was no less than director Robert Altman who cast him in Popeye. Although it was a resounding misfire, it didn’t prevent Robin from getting offers from other top directors. He chose to work with George Roy Hill on The World According to Garp, again playing the titular character. This time he hit the jackpot. The film won innumerable awards, and Williams received glowing reviews for playing a serious role.
The timing couldn’t be better — his TV show had run its course, and now he was considered a full-fledged movie star. Much to his disappointment, his first comedy role, opposite Walter Matthau in Michael Ritchie’s The Survivors, was only a middling success, but then he found his mojo with Paul Mazursky in Moscow on the Hudson which earned him a Golden Globe nomination as Best Actor in a Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical.
He floundered with his next three The Best of Times, Club Paradise, and Seize the Day (a morose drama based on the Saul Bellow novel). His acting career seemed at an impasse, but miraculously he came back with Good Morning Vietnam, his most signature role, which not only earned him his second Golden Globe but was one of the year’s biggest moneymakers.
From then on his box offer clout was assured. He followed it with a straight role in Dead Poets Society for which he was nominated a fifth time for a Golden Globe, this time in the drama category as Best Actor. The film was one of the year’s most acclaimed movies distinguished by Robin’s performance as a college professor which he played with surprising depth and feeling. His followup movie Cadillac Man was not well received, but it paved the way for two of his most acclaimed performances, as Oliver Sacks in Awakenings with Robert De Niro and with Jeff Bridges in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, for which he won successive Golden Globes as best actor (drama for Awakenings and comedy or musical for Fisher King.)
For the next few years, he could do no wrong. Steven Spielberg cast him as Peter Pan in Hook, one of their lesser achievements, but it was quickly followed by two of his most beloved roles, the Genie in Aladdin and Mrs. Doubtfire, for which he won his fifth and last Golden Globe, as Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Comedy or Musical.
Good Will Hunting won him a well deserved Oscar as Best Supporting Actor, but after that, he coasted along in independent films each time hoping for that nirvana that he never achieved. Now that he is no longer with us, they deserve a second look: One Hour Photo, The Big White, The Angriest Man in New York are well worth your time. But their sense of mediocrity must have got to him, and he chose to end his life. The whole world mourned his tragic death.
He was our Cecil B. deMille recipient in 2005, nine years before his untimely death.
The tributes that flowed are best summarized in what President Obama had to say: “Robin Williams was one of a kind. He arrived in our lives as an alien -- but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit. He made us laugh. He made us cry. He gave his immeasurable talent freely and generously to those who needed it most -- from our troops stationed abroad to the marginalized on our own streets. The Obama family offers our condolences to Robin's family, his friends, and everyone who found their voice and their verse thanks to Robin Williams.”