When news broke Monday evening of Robin Williams’s death by apparent suicide, the country reacted in step as though it had lost a close friend. Facebook and Twitter flooded with heartbroken remembrances and favorite quotes and clips from the actor and comedian’s most memorable TV and film appearances, almost too many to count. President Obama released a statement calling Mr. Williams “ an airman, a doctor, a genie, a nanny, a president, a professor, a bangarang Peter Pan,” – references he didn’t explain further, because he didn’t need to. Makeshift memorials began popping up in William’s most memorable filming locations, including the house in “Mrs. Doubtfire” and a bench in the Boston Public Garden featured in “Good Will Hunting.”
The widespread outpouring of grief for Williams is hardly surprising: He had a three-decade run as a cultural touchstone. Especially for a comedic actor that’s rare, and his run as a reliable box office draw may never be matched again. From Mork to Mrs. Doubtfire to Aladdin’s genie, Williams was a star that people would come to see – and hear – again and again.
Williams’s prodigious gifts as a performer were recognized almost right away: In his early 20s, he was one of two students selected for an advanced studies program at Julliard (the other was Christopher Reeve). Soon after, he landed a cameo role as the alien Mork in the TV series “Happy Days.” His appearances were so popular that a spinoff, "Mork and Mindy,” was soon ordered up. That show ran for four seasons, and Mork became a common sight on a wide range of merchandise, from lunchboxes to posters to T-shirts to puzzles.
His market appeal, born of a combination of manic energy and emotional vulnerability, translated easily to film. Williams’s movies have grossed a combined $3.2 billion in the United States and $5.2 billion worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo, a film stats aggregation site. He’s been in 13 films that have grossed more than $100 million in the US, without adjusting for inflation.
In addition to being a box office draw, Williams was influential in the world of voice-over: Widespread acclaim for his work as the voice of the genie in Disney’s "Aladdin" set the standard and inspired other major stars to do voice animated characters. The demand for his talents in that arena was such that at one point, in order to get him to participate in more projects, Disney formally apologized for not compensating him adequately for his work on "Aladdin."
For comedians to have such sustained success in the film industry is a rarity. Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, and Jack Black all saw their popularity explode in the early 2000s; Ferrell had a hit last winter with “Anchorman 2,” but all three had brief reigns at the top compared with Williams. Other comics, from Zach Galifianakis to Melissa McCarthy, had even shorter stints before critics, and soon after, audiences, grew weary of them.
Part of Williams’s staying power was his success in dramatic films, including “Dead Poets Society” and his Oscar-winning turn in “Good Will Hunting.” "There's only a few I can think of who can so nimbly step back and forth between drama and comedy like Robin Williams did," film critic Richard Roeper told CNBC on Tuesday.
Even in recent years, past the height of his stardom, symptoms of his enduring appeal remained. “Mrs. Doubtfire,” was the most-played movie on cable TV last year, according to a report from the research firm IHS Technology. Apple used one of the actor’s monologues as Mr. Keating in “Dead Poets Society” as the voice-over for its Super Bowl commercial “Your Verse”. In making that choice, Apple was surely aware of how many millions of us associate Williams not just with laughter, but with nonconformity, emotional complexity, and a keen sense of how beautiful and hopeful the world can be.