Looking back: what we didn’t know about Robin Williams’ life

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There are certain TV and movie characters who we all grow up with, and they just stick in our minds forever (and ever, and ever). For some, it may be Jack Dawson from Titanic. For others, it may be Pennywise from It *shivers*. For other people, it may be Marge Simpson (because why not?), and for others, it may be Princess Leia. But for us, it’s Robin Williams and every single character he has ever played.


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Over the course of his career, Robin Williams brought us some of the most iconic TV and movie characters of the century. He gifted us with the goofy and alien, lin the form of Mork from Mork & Mindy. He brought us the incredible English teacher, John Keating, in Dead Poets Society. He brought us the magical Genie from Aladdin. He brought us a wacky professor. He brought us a slightly dysfunctional nanny in Mrs. Doubtfire, as well as many more. Robin Williams is, and will always be a national treasure; one that we thank for bringing light to some of our darkest days – and it seems we’re not the only ones to think so.

The stand-up comic and actor won numerous awards throughout his lifetime, including two Screen Actors Guild Awards, two Emmy Awards, seven Golden Globes, a Grammy, and an Oscar. Not only was Williams an incredible actor, but he was also a role model. He changed the course of stand up comedy in America, taught others the importance of finding your own voice through improvisation, and showed people that it’s okay to struggle. It’s all a part of life.

Several years after his death, the world still can’t believe that one of the greatest actors in the world is no longer with us. However, his characters continue to inspire us all and will forever be in our memories, and through them his spirit lives on. Looking back at Robin Williams’ life story, we show his early life, career, personal struggles, family life, affairs, addictions and more.


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The early years

Robin McLaurin Williams (what a name) was born on July 21, 1951. Williams grew up with his mother, who was a former model, his father, who worked as a senior executive, and his two half-brothers. During his early years, Robin was a shy, overweight child. Because of this he often found it hard to make friends. Williams began to use humor to make his mother laugh while trying to master his various impersonations. His tenderness showed through even then.

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Getting older

As Robin got older, his humor and his confidence grew immensely. In his teenage years, the Williams family moved to Michigan, where he attended a private school. Within his first day, Williams had already won over his classmates with his humor and charm and soon became a model pupil – and not just in academics. Williams played on the soccer team, as well as the wrestling team. As he progressed through the school, he was also nominated and elected to be the class president. Go, Robin!

After high school

By his high school graduation, Robin had already been tarnished with the “class clown” brush, and his friends were shocked to find out that he had applied to study political science at Claremont College. Surely he would want to pursue his talent? After a couple of months at Claremont, Williams realized that political science wasn’t the right route for him. He really wanted to study theater. So Williams dropped out of Claremont and enrolled at the College of Marin instead.

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College productions

We all remember our high school and college productions, and most of us were lucky if we could get anyone who could efficiently pull off the role of Danny Zuko in Grease. However, the College of Marin soon realized that they had a star in their midst after Robin Williams auditioned for the role of Fagin in the popular musical Oliver! The college professors began to use Williams’ impressive talent to improvise his lines to their advantage and had the audience members in absolute stitches.

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Juilliard Days

After wowing his college with his acting chops, Robin Williams was offered a full scholarship to study at the prestigious performing arts school, Juilliard. The school is known for producing some of the best actors and performers in the business, which is proven by Williams’ roommate – none other than Silver Spoons actor Franklyn Seales. Williams also shared his classes with famous celebrities, such as The Princess Bride’s Mandy Patinkin, Superman Christopher Reeve, and Children of a Lesser God’s William Hurt. Not bad, eh?

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A man of many talents

We all know that college isn’t cheap, and living on campus and affording your daily coffee (or all four of them) comes at a cost. To pay his way through college, Robin Williams would use his impressive physical theater skills on the streets of New York to try and impress his audience and earn a bit of extra cash. Williams would spend his free time performing as a mime and street artist with the Metropolitan Museum of Art behind him. What a man.

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Thriving at school

Williams began to thrive under the instruction of the Juilliard teachers – but many of them were utterly perplexed by him. They just couldn’t understand the man who walked around with tie-dye T-shirts and baggy trousers. One minute he would take direction and produce convincing dialogue and performances. The next minute he would be improvising his own work and speaking in a Scottish accent. Nevertheless, they couldn’t deny that he was talented. Williams eventually left Juilliard in his third year, after director and teacher John Houseman told him he had received all the teaching he needed.

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Comedy Renaissance

After dropping out of Juilliard, Williams began to pursue a career in comedy and made his way to San Francisco to play in the comedy clubs. During this era, comedy clubs were full of hippies, rock music, and deviance, and Williams found himself getting caught up in the wrong crowd. He began to experiment with illegal substances, many of which he said made him feel incredibly happy and creative. Soon enough he had helped towards the comedy renaissance in San Francisco.


A move to LA

With each show Williams became more and more confident of his abilities, and after a while he decided to move to L.A. in the hopes of progressing even further. After performing at the famous Comedy Club, Williams was scouted by George Schlatter who asked him to appear on his reboot of Laugh-In. Although the series was a flop, the exposure was what Williams needed to make his big break into the world of television. By 1979, Williams had his own live shows and had even won a Grammy Award for his work. You could say he was kind of a big deal, whose talents were acknowledged by iconic comics like Rodney Dangerfield, pictured here with him.

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The stress of it all

As Williams’ name became more and more prominent in the world of comedy, the stress of it all became too much – and Robin fell even further into the trap of drink and substance abuse. Robin always made sure that he was sober when he was performing but fell into a downward spiral as soon as he was off stage. Years later Robin would blame the pressures of fame and pleasing his fans as the catalyst that pushed even further into harder substances.

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Playing Mork

One of Robin Williams’ earliest TV successes was his role on Happy Days. With his quirky persona and his wacky sense of humor, Williams fit the bill of Mork perfectly. His character became a much-loved character on the show and even resulted in a spin-off show called Mork & Mindy. Most of his dialogue during the filming of these shows was completely improvised, and the producers simply left him to it (a bit risky, but it worked out for the best).

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Robin, the film actor

After the initial success of his TV performance Robin Williams made his debut into the world of cinema. He bagged himself his first major role in 1980 when he was cast as Popeye in the hilarious eponymous musical comedy (I mean, how perfect is that casting?) Unfortunately the film didn’t sit well with critics, but the platform had enabled Williams to dip his toes into movie making.

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His films

Robin Williams brought us some of the most iconic characters we all know and love throughout his movie career, which includes some of the most popular films of this century. He starred in Dead Poets Society, Aladdin, Good Will Hunting, Night at the Museum, Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji, Patch Adams and more. Not only was he an established stand-up comedian, television actor and film actor – but Robin Williams also made his Broadway debut in 2011, when he starred in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.

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A man of many faces

Throughout his career, Robin Williams received a reputation as “the man of many faces” as he was able to perfectly imitate any accent, impersonation or improvisation. In fact, during the filming of Disney’s Aladdin, Robin provided a whopping 16 hours of dialogue for the Genie. Robin constantly strayed away from the script, which meant it couldn’t be submitted for the Academy Award category. In our eyes, the script doesn’t need an award; we know how amazing it was.

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Testing Mrs. Doubtfire

One of Robin Williams’ most iconic characters is, of course, Mrs. Doubtfire (who didn’t want Mrs. Doubtfire to look after them and cook them dinner/set their dinner on fire?) Before filming for this legendary movie began, Williams wanted to test out the authenticity of his character. And so, completely attired in his Doubtfire get-up, Williams went shopping in an adult store – and people totally believed his disguise. That’s one way to do it.

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The lads

During the height of his career, Robin Williams surrounded himself with some of the biggest names in Hollywood – and even entered into some pretty funky business ventures with a few of them! Although it is now sadly closed, Robin Williams teamed up with fellow legends Robert De Niro and Francis Ford Coppola to bring the people of San Francisco the famous Rubicon Restaurant. We doubt they did the cooking, though.

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A humble man

Despite his ever-increasing fame, Robin Williams always stayed humble and thanked those who helped him along the way – in the most hilarious fashion. After winning an Oscar for his performance in Good Will Hunting, Williams sent Peer Augustinski a replica of his Oscar, with a note thanking him for making him famous in Germany. Peer was used to provide the German dubbing of Williams’ voice in numerous films, including Good Will Hunting. We reckon Peer would have been really happy with that.

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His impressions

There’s no doubt that Robin Williams was incredibly talented at impressions. However, despite so many voices in his repertoire, he still might have gotten pretty bored of them at some point – save one, we guess. During an interview, Williams was asked which celebrity he liked to impersonate the most, and he said Jack Nicholson. According to Robin, he could impersonate Jack Nicholson all day and never lose interest. He also noted that the comedian Dana Carvey was one of the only comedians to nail an impression of him. We’re totally checking that out.

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Best friends

Robin Williams and Christopher Reeve became extremely close after the pair attended Juilliard together. The two spent much of their free time together, they helped each other out when they needed it, and they respected each other’s craft.

Sadly, Christopher suffered a life-changing accident that left him paralyzed. True to form, while Christopher was lying in the hospital, Robin turned up as a Russian proctologist, ready to examine his patient. It made Christopher laugh for the first time since the accident.

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Lifting their spirits

It seems as if Robin Williams had a calming and uplifting effect on everyone he met and touched with his craft. Williams was a close friend of director Steven Spielberg, who directed Schindler’s List. While directing the movie the Holocaust, Spielberg understandably became quite sad, so Williams called him every so often to tell him jokes and put a smile on his face.

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An amazing apology

After the release of Walt Disney’s classic Aladdin movie, the company used Robin Williams’ voice in their Genie toys – despite Williams specifically asking them not to. As a way of apologizing for including his voice in the merchandise, Disney sent Williams a little gift. And when we say “little,” we mean a one of a kind (and incredibly expensive) original Picasso painting. What an apology.

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Not a ladies man

Unlike many other male actors of the time, Williams didn’t have hundreds of women falling head over heels for him, though he was still fairly popular with the ladies. During the early ’70s, Williams dated fellow comedienne Elayne Boosler, and even moved in with her. A few years after their relationship ended, Williams fell for Valerie Velardi while he was living in San Francisco, and the couple tied the knot in 1978. Awwww.

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Their son

Robin Williams, and Valerie Velardi welcomed their first child, Zachary Pym Williams, into the world five years into their marriage. At this point, Williams was still deep into substance abuse and was drinking heavily. At the time of Zachary’s birth, one of William’s’ close friends died of an illegal substance overdose. The birth of his son and the devastating news of his friend’s death served as a wake-up call to Williams, who actively tried to curb his habit and maintain his sobriety.

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The nanny scandal

Would it be Hollywood without ANOTHER nanny scandal? To deal with his hectic schedule, Williams employed the help of Marsha Garces who worked for him as a nanny. Unbeknown to his wife, Williams became romantically involved with Marsha and entered into an illicit affair with her. By 1988, it was uncovered that Marsha was pregnant with Robin’s child. Completely shocked by the news, Williams divorced Valerie Velardi and married Marsha in 1989. Their daughter, Zelda Rae Williams was born that same year. The couple also welcomed a son, Cody Alan Williams, in 1991.

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Yep, another scandal

Marsha and Robin seemed to have a happy and healthy relationship, and the pair remained happily married until 2008 – when she found out her husband had been unfaithful to her, as well. Marsha had discovered that her husband had been going behind her back and having an affair with artist Charlotte Filbert, who was 27-years-old at the time. Marsha and Robin separated, and she filed for divorce, which was finalized in 2010.

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His relationship with Charlotte

Williams met Charlotte Filbert through Ally Hilfiger, Tommy Hilfiger’s daughter. He and Filbert soon became extremely close and the actor took her to romantic dinners and to long walks on the beach. Reportedly, Williams also gave Filbert $10,000 each month as payment for her apartment in Manhattan. The two shared a mutual love for art, and Williams bought several of her works. Filbert was almost 30 years younger than Williams. After a year, the two reportedly parted as friends.

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Heart surgery

In 2009, news of Robin Williams’ hospitalization shocked his fans. Robin had been complaining of chest pains and an odd feeling in his heart over the previous weeks. After he was taken to the hospital, it was discovered that he needed heart surgery in order to replace his damaged aortic valve. Before he went under the knife, Robin met the graphic designer, Susan Schneider. Susan helped nurse Robin back to health, and after a short courtship period the two tied the knot in 2011.

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Stints in rehab

It’s no secret that Robin Williams suffered from substance and alcohol abuse throughout his life. After attempting to go cold turkey following the birth of his eldest son, Robin found himself returning to bad habits while he was working on set in Alaska. In 2006, Robin decided he needed to take proper action and checked himself into rehab for alcoholism. After his stint in rehab, it seemed as though Robin had got a hold of himself. However, in 2014 he re-entered rehab; once again for alcohol abuse.

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Estranged from his wife

According to the press, a source supposedly close to Robin during his final years believes that Williams’ turbulent relationship with his wife, Susan Schneider, may have driven him to the edge. “There were odd things she did in the months leading up to his death… The children were edged out of the family, slowly isolating father from his family,” he said. “She wanted to take control so she could be in charge of his financials… Robin was aware of this, and unfortunately, his health was what led him to fear that he would ultimately be under the control of someone he didn’t trust.”

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Further alienation

The anonymous source revealed that the actor’s Parkinson’s diagnosis (later revealed to have been a misdiagnosis, when in fact he had been suffering from dementia) caused him further alienation from Schneider. A source stated that “things came to light that Susan wanted to basically put Robin away, like in a facility, where she would have absolute control and they would never see him. She is a callous, cold woman.”

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He was devastated

The source went on to claim that Williams and Schneider were sleeping in separate rooms in the months before his death. “It was clear there was something seriously wrong with their marriage… He didn’t feel in control. He felt he married to someone whose motives went beyond love.” According to the insider, Williams was devastated when Schneider prevented him from seeing his children on the actor’s birthday, several weeks before he decided to take his own life.

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His death

On August 11, 2014, the world was left shaken. At the height of his career, and at the tender age of 63-years-old, Robin Williams took his own life. Fans across the world were devastated by this horrific news and began to question whether his struggle with substance abuse and alcohol contributed to his death. However, it was revealed that the only things that they found in his body at the time of death were low-levels of prescription pills.

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A misdiagnosis

It was confirmed that in the months running up to his death, Williams was at an incredibly low point of his life and was suffering from extreme depression. During this period, Williams had also been misdiagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Williams was incredibly distressed with this and didn’t publicly divulge this information. However, his autopsy revealed that instead of Parkinson’s Williams had Lewy Body Dementia – which is often linked to depression. Is should also be stated that paranoia, another dementia symptom, could also explain his distrust of those close to him.

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The industry’s reaction

Williams’ passing shocked the entertainment business. While some people knew about his troubled past and ongoing health issues, no one expected this outcome. Williams had many friends in the industry, and many of them paid a tribute for the late actor, including Robert de Niro, David Letterman, Matt Damon and Jimmy Fallon. In 2014, Billy Crystal paid a tribute to Robin Williams during the Emmy Awards.

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Legal dispute

Following his death, Scheider engaged in a legal dispute over his possessions with Williams’ three children from his previous relationships – Zachary, Zelda and Cody. His kids accused Schneider of “adding insult to a terrible injury” since she wanted to change a trust agreement. The dispute was over the Williams’ estate and several items of the late actor, including watches, memorabilia and several of his photographs. The parties later came to an agreement that allowed Schneider to remain in their mutual home. She will also receive life expenses for the rest of her life.

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Supporting the troops

Amongst his many qualities, William was also a true patriot of the United States. His kindness in real life matched his legendary role in the 1987 movie Good morning Vietnam, as the late actor often visited and entertained US troops in Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq and 10 other countries. One of the weirdest incidents during his career occurred during a performance to US troops in Kuwait, when the entire crowd suddenly turned their back on him to salute the flag. As a civilian, Williams had no idea what was going on but was later notified that it was a military tradition.

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Making her laugh

Following the surprise for his good friend Christopher Reeve in the hospital, Williams did the same for Sharon Osbourne after she was diagnosed with cancer. Ozzy osbourne saw the film Patch Adams starring Williams and thought that a similar thing could help his suffering wife. Osbourne contacted Williams, who surprised Sharon in her hospital bed and made her laugh for the rest of the day.

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Just like Patch Adams

Sharon osbourne revealed the incident during an interview in 2002: “I was in bed when he came by, half asleep and a little woozy from some of the medication the doctors had given me to take. Suddenly, there’s a knock on my bedroom door and I say, ‘Come in.’ And there’s Robin Williams standing in front of me,” she said. “Well, I thought I must be dreaming. In fact, I thought I was hallucinating from the drugs I’d been given! I couldn’t think of what to say, so I said, ‘Does Ozzy know you’re here?’ Then, Robin got in bed with me and said, ‘Shhh! No, he doesn’t and don’t tell him!’ Well, that just cracked me up. I was in bed with Robin Williams. I started laughing hysterically. For the next two hours, he just cuddled me.”

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Least likely to succeed

Although Williams was revered for his comic talent since a young age, not many people thought that he could actually make it in the entertainment business. in his youth, the actor attended Redwood High School in California and was voted by his fellow classmates as the “Least Likely To Succeed.” The late actor went to earn five grammy awards, two emmys and an academy award for Good Will Hunting.

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His favorite book

Williams revealed that his favorite book as a child, which also became his children’s favorite book was “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” The actor wouldfrequently read the book to his kids, saying: “Growing up, it was The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – I would read the whole C.S. Lewis series out loud to my kids. I was once reading to Zelda, and she said ‘don’t do any voices. Just read it as yourself.’ So I did, I just read it straight, and she said ‘that’s better.’”

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Supporting Jessica Chastain

Unlike many celebrities in the entertainment industry, Robin Williams never forgot where he came from and the hardships he had to go through. Not many people know, but Williams helped the now-famous actor Jessica Chastain to become the first one in her family to have higher education. The actor funded her full scholarship to Juilliard when she started her acting career. “I’m the first person in my family to go to college. We didn’t have a lot of money, and Juilliard is a pretty expensive school,” said the actress during an interview. “Robin Williams is a very generous Juilliard alumnus, and gives a scholarship every two years to a student, and it pays for everything, and I got it. I still haven’t gotten to meet him.” Chastain graduated from Juilliard with a BFA in 2003, and went on to become one of the successful actresses in Hollywood.

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Stealing his material

Many sources from the Stand-up comedy scene in Hollywood allegedly reported that William stole some of their material for his performances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Others even said that whenever they would spot Williams in the crowd during their act, they would stop the show in order to prevent him from stealing their best punches. David Brenner even told Williams’ agent that if Robin will steal one more joke from him, it will not end well for him.

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Friends with Belushi

Williams was a close friend of the late John Belushi during the 1970s, and his death by illegal substance overdose influenced him to turn his life around. “The Belushi tragedy was frightening,” the actor told during an interview. “His death scared a whole group of show-business people. It caused a big exodus from these things. And for me, there was the baby coming. I knew I couldn’t be a father and live that sort of life.”

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Against Saddam

In 2003, Williams performed in front of US troops in Baghdad after Saddam Hussein was captured. “I love the fact that when he came out of that spider hole, he wanted to negotiate,” said Williams during the show, before imitating a soldier’s voice: “It’s a little late for that, bubsy! You’re at the point where you’re going to share a cell with a large man named Bubba. I’m gonna be yo’ new Baghdaddy.”

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A hernia to the audience

Inside the Actor’s Studio is a long-running television show hosted by legendary interviewer James Lipton. The show gets the biggest actors in Hollywood to sit down for an in-depth interview in front of acting students at the New York City campus of Pace University. When Robin Williams was interviewed on the show he caused everyone to laugh so hard that one of the people in the audience actually suffered a hernia.

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Front row seat

During another interview, Robin Williams was asked what he thought would happen when he died, and, should he believe in an afterlife, what would he like Saint Peter to say to him when he reaches the Pearly Gates. In true Robin Williams fashion, he answered that his biggest wish in the afterlife would be for him to have a front row ticket to a concert performed by both Mozart as well as Elvis Presley.

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Mork

The wildly successful show Happy Days was looking for a new idea for an episode when the director came in and said that his eight year old son wanted to see an alien on the show. So, auditions were held to find an alien. Robin Williams was one of the many people who auditioned and he immediately got the part. This is because he did the entire interview while doing a headstand. The producers immediately took him on, as he was the only one who was “truly an alien.”

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A child of many voices

As noted previously, Robin Williams was a bit of an outcast as a kid. One of the reasons for this, according to him, was because he was a good deal chubbier than the rest of the children at his school. Therefore, with no one to talk to, Williams decided that he would just talk to himself. In order to have more people to talk to, the young Robin started talking in all different types of silly voices.

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Too Crazy

When Stanley Kubrick was looking for actors for his film The Shining, one of the first people he looked into hiring was Robin Williams. Williams, was was starring as Mork on the hit show Mork & Mindy, auditioned for the movie. However, after seeing his audition, as well as seeing Williams portray Mork on his show, Kubrick determined that Williams was simply too crazy to be in the movie. He casted Jack Nicholson instead.

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Rolling with the best

It turns out that Robin Williams was a huge fan of competitive bike cycling, reportedly owning over 50 different bicycles. In fact, he was such a big fan that he would sometimes train with Lance Armstrong. There have been many pictures of the two men together, and it is even reported that Robin Williams would usually ride along in Armstrong’s team car when going to and from races.

Overall leader Lance Armstrong, of Austin, Texas, left, jokes with visiting friend, US actor Robin Williams, right, prior to the 18th stage of the Tour de France cycling race between Bordeaux, southwestern France, and Saint-Maixent-l'Ecole, western France, Friday, July, 25, 2003. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong) ORG XMIT: TDF111

The legend of Zelda

If we are being completely honest, we have to say that the name Zelda is a very strange, yet very memorable name. As it turns out, Williams’ son Zach really wanted a sister named after his favorite video game, which is the Legends of Zelda. The little tyke somehow convinced both of his parents of the idea, and now it’s the name of Robin’s daughter.

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Incredible box office feat

One of the biggest hopes for a movie producer is that their movie will come out and be adored by the American (and nowadays, worldwide) public. They are trying to make smash box office hits, and are always looking for the right formula to do so. Therefore, when Robin Williams’ movies Jumanji and The Birdcage were released on the same week and each drew in over $100 million, movie studios were ecstatic.

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Ad libbed cameo

Back in the 1990s the sitcom Friends was at the top of the ratings game. So it was no surprise when the producers decided to have two of the biggest actors at the time – Robin Williams and Billy Crystal – come in and do cameos during one of its episodes. However, due to the fact that both of these men were so good at improvisation, the producers didn’t give the actors a script. The two just improvised the entire scene!

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Losing an Academy Award

One of the movies that we absolutely loved Robin Williams in was, of course, Aladdin. With Robin Williams playing the genie, the movie quickly became one of the most watched and beloved Disney animated classics. However, when the film was put up to be nominated for an Academy Award, the Academy refused Aladdin’s submission for Best Adapted Screenplay. Why? Because Williams ad libbed the vast majority of his parts.

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Where is he from again?

For years the majority of people thought that Robin Williams was from Scotland. This is because he said that he was from the country in one of his first ever interviews. In fact, when he was getting billed for different movies and stand up specials, people wrote that he was Scottish. Williams gave up the ruse several years later in another interview, saying that he was “under the influence” when he said he was Scottish.

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Shazbot!

This word was invented by Robin Williams as he was reprising the role of Mork on Mork & Mindy. Shazbot was intended to be a sort of curse word used in the alien’s language, and it quickly caught on across the American Zeitgeist. The word was even featured in The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror as well as the Starsiege Tribes video game series. It was even one of the the last words uttered by AC/DC singer Bon Scott!

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Fading away

According to his third and final wife, Susan Schneider, Williams had less than three years left due to his suffering from diffuse Lewy body dementia. She said that these years would have been extremely hard for him. “I’ve spent this last year trying to find out what killed Robin, to understand what we were fighting, what we were in the trenches fighting. One of the doctors said Robin was very aware that he was losing his mind and there was nothing he could do about it.” R.I.P., Robin Williams.

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