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Robin Williams
Photograph: Susan SchneiderRobin Williams

Rest in peace, Robin Williams

At 63, the actor died of an apparent suicide on August 11


Legendary comedian and Oscar-winning actor Robin Williams had been found dead in his home in Tiburon, California. Police and the local coroner's office are confirming the cause of death as suicide via asphyxiation. The news is especially devastating given Williams' much-publicized battles with cocaine, alcohol and, as confirmed by his publicist, depression—battles the star had beaten time and again, becoming a symbol of resilience while also producing brilliant work.

It's impossible to be a lover of comedy and not be crushed by this news. Even when Williams' energetic improvisations scraped the far edge of mania—sometimes even of comprehensibility—there was no denying his quickness of mind. Few stand-ups were as consistently inventive. And no other comic rooted as deeply in the psyche of a generation that grew up between the years of TV's Mork & Mindy and 1992's animated classic Aladdin. During that span and beyond, Williams was a trailblazer: a source of mirth to millions, if not billions, worldwide.

In the movies, Williams modulated his gifts, broadening into dramatic depth, stillness and occasional villainy. But it should be noted that his range was there from the beginning: Popeye (1980) coexists with the actor's soulful work in The World According to Garp (1982); Hook (1991) with Dead Poets Society (1989) and Good Morning, Vietnam (1987). The Oscar finally came for his extraordinary turn in Good Will Hunting (1997), a good 20 years into his film career. It's an angelic performance in a movie expressly about fighting inner demons—and a movie worth returning to, for the truth Williams lends it.

I'll treasure him for the pair of movies he made with director Terry Gilliam, a kindred spirit in anarchy and rage. Those are The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), in which Williams steals the movie as the rambling King of the Moon (no one else could have played that part), and The Fisher King (1991), a classic New York fantasia that aches with loss and breakdown. When the city becomes too much for me, or when I see someone lost in their haze of muttering (as we all do), I try to remember that film's tenderness for the damaged. Williams' art was a gift of sympathy. We owe it to his memory to open our arms and let in what he so often supplied us.

Robin Williams recalls his time growing up in Chicago

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